Foster Files Part VI: Ditch

I waited for signs that Ruth was kidding. A playful punch on the arm. A deep laugh and a “Gotcha!” But she just sat there, her feral green eyes darting back and forth between Sol and me.

I couldn’t take the silence, so I leaned in, and said, “What do you mean you’re not paying?”
“What? You think I’m gonna blow all my hard-earned cash on you two?”

And that’s when I started to panic.

“Ruth! You told us you were taking us out to lunch. I don’t have any money with me!”
Sol had about a dollar in change, which wouldn’t even cover his fries. But he was familiar with Ruth’s antics, so he tried to play it cool as he said, “Stop screwing around, Ruth. I know you have the money. We’ll pay you back if you want.”

“Sol, I told you. I’m not paying. And unless you want to get busted, you’ll follow me out the door right now.”

And that’s when my heart began to race.

“Ruth! We can’t just walk out. They’ll see us! They’ll catch us!”

“Not if we walk out like we just paid. I’ll go first, and you guys follow.”

And that’s when I felt like throwing up.

Sol and I just sat there, silent, except for the mechanical sound of my hyperventilation. But as soon as we realized that Ruth was dead serious, we clicked into survival mode. Fight or flight.
“I’m going after Ruth,” I whispered.

“Hell if I’m going last! We’ll leave at the same time.”

We agreed to all leave together, but our escape had to be perfectly timed, like a Russian ballet, or an aircraft carrier landing. From her vantage point, Ruth was able to follow our waitress as she moved throughout the restaurant. As soon as she cleared away the dishes from the booth behind us, and walked back toward the kitchen, Ruth went into action.

She nodded at Sol and me, so we knew we had no choice but to follow. There was no turning back. Though my immediate instinct was to run, that would have been a dead giveaway. I couldn’t look at anyone or anything except the door on my way out. It seemed so much closer when we first came in.

As soon as we stepped outside the door, Ruth and Sol did what the Fosters did best – they ran. They ran really fast. I tried to keep up, but my belly full of cheeseburger and malt had other plans for the afternoon.

About a block outside the restaurant, a man walking his dog came toward me on the sidewalk, blocking my path. Instead of just waiting for him to pass, in my crime spree panic I decided to jump the fence next to him, landing me directly in someone’s front yard. I cut through the yard and came out on the other side of the block. Fearing The Medallion had released the hounds in our pursuit, I zigzagged my way home in the most inefficient of manners, cutting through alleys and sloshing across creeks.

When I finally made it back, Sol and Ruth were sitting on their front steps, laughing hysterically.

Ruth shouted, “Where the hell did you go, Jenny?”

“Yeah, what took you so long?” Sol added.

“You’re both so stupid! We could’ve been arrested!”

Sol, suddenly filled with the false bravado of adrenaline, said, “Aw, you’re such a goody-goody. That was too much fun!”

I kicked the half-deflated basketball sitting on their lawn at him, and walked down the block back to my house, the sound of their laughter still burning in my ears. For the rest of the summer, I wouldn’t even walk past The Medallion, assuming they had posted police artist renderings of my face by the cash register. Several times, my parents planned on bringing my brother and me there for dinner, but I always complained, or feigned a stomach ache.

“Ughh, I hate The Medallion. Why can’t we go somewhere else? I want pizza. That’s the only thing that sounds good to me.”

“Jenny. We just had pizza last week. You always used to like The Medallion.”

“Mom, I hate The Medallion. Why can’t I stay home? Matt and I just want to play Coleco.”

After several months of my whining, my parents decided that my brother and I were old enough to stay home alone on Friday nights. My brother will never know that my petty theft is the reason he was never again invited out to dinner on Fridays with our parents.

Decades passed, hairstyles changed, The Medallion was bought and sold several times, yet still I refused to return to the scene of the crime. That is, of course, until Christmas two years ago. My mother and I were doing some last minute holiday shopping in town when I started to feel a bit peckish. I suggested we take a break from the crowds and grab some lunch.

My mother gushed, “Oh, we should go to Athena’s! It’s the cutest little Greek family restaurant. They have a million things on the menu, and really good food. They make a tuna melt you’ll just go nuts for!”

“Mmm! A tuna melt sounds great! Where’s Athena’s?”

“You know – that’s the old Medallion on 52nd.”

The Medallion. My old nemesis.

That was a name I hadn’t thought of in years, yet just hearing the word felt like a kick in the stomach. I couldn’t go back there! What if that waitress still works there? Granted, she’d be about 70, but it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.

“Ughh. I don’t know. The more I think about it, I just had a tuna melt yesterday. Let’s go somewhere else. How about pizza? ”

“Jen, we’re right in the neighborhood. They have everything there – sandwiches, salads, burgers – I’m sure there’s something you’d like. C’mon, everywhere else is so crowded. Let’s just go there.”

I tried a few more times to get out of going to Athena’s, but I could see I wasn’t going to win that battle. My heart started to beat faster as we turned the corner and pulled into a parking spot across the street. The sign may have changed, but this was clearly still The Medallion. I took a deep breath as we walked through the glass door.

So much history.

One whiff of that hamburger grease and it all came flooding back to me. I remembered sitting by the window, a carefree ten year old one minute, a hardened fugitive the next. I had evaded the authorities for over twenty years, and now here I was. Back where it all started. It almost felt like I was flaunting my crime to walk in there so boldly. It’s like I wanted to get caught.
The waitress asked us where we’d like to sit, and my mother started to answer, “Oh, could we get a boo-“

TABLE! We’ll take that table over there.”

As we sat down and started looking over the menus, I kept scanning the crowd for familiar faces. Why was the busboy eyeing me up like that? Did the cook tell him something? Had I been fingered? I tried to stay calm, and decided to order the Greek chicken salad. Suddenly I wished I had worn a hat.

I don’t remember much of my conversation with my mother during lunch. I think she told me something about my grandmother’s cat, and what my nephews said on the phone the other day, but I kept flashing back to 1981. It was so strange – my chicken salad tasted like burger, my iced tea like a malt. Someone at the table next to us knocked over the ketchup bottle and I almost hit the floor.

I told my mother that I was anxious to finish up my Christmas shopping, so we paid the bill and started to leave. We were almost to the door, when I stopped dead in my tracks.

“Jenny – what’s wrong?”

I stared blankly, and then said, “Uh, nothing. I… I think I left my gloves. You go warm up the car. I’ll be right out.”

The waitress was just about to grab the check off our table, when I put my hand over it. I slipped a $20 bill under the money my mother had left, handed it to back to her, and sighed, “Forgot the tip.”

A blast of cold wind hit me as I walked out to the car, and for the first time in almost a quarter century, I felt the rush of freedom.

Foster Files Part V: Dine

Ruth rode up as her younger brother, Solomon, and I sat on the curb, pulling out clumps of grass and shoving sticks down the sewer grate. As she dug her heels into the pavement to slow her bike’s speed, she spit in the grass next to us and said, “Hey. Meet me uptown around 1:00.”

Sol checked his arm for moisture and said, “Hey dumbass! You almost spit on me!”

Ruth laughed. I poked at a small anthill with a twig, and said, “Why? What’s uptown?”

“Just meet me by The Medallion at 1:00 for lunch. It’s too frickin’ hot to work all day today.”

During that particularly steamy summer, Ruth earned extra cash by working as an official employee of Sammy Man Ice Cream. Her vehicle of choice was a bright white ice cream cart, covered in decals advertising her tempting frozen wares. For about six hours a day, she would peddle around town, the sound of her bells serving as a sweet siren song to grubby children and sweaty construction workers alike.

It was a dream job as far as her brothers and I were concerned, because it gave us access to an unlimited supply of dry ice for experiments, and the occasional complimentary Bomb Pop® or Drumstick® to boot. Well, they weren’t exactly complimentary, but Ruth had a way of getting some of her male customers to pay more so that she always had enough cash to cover our indulgences.

And besides that, she found that it was far more profitable to fill the cart with cans of beer stolen from her older brother, and sell them to the factory workers at the auto plant. They would sometimes pay her $2 for a can of Pabst, depending on how hot it was that day.

Although only ten years old, I learned a great deal about supply and demand that summer.
Sol and I met Ruth at The Medallion, which was a corner diner that my family and I would sometimes go to on Friday nights. Ruth told us that she’d had an exceptionally good day at the factory, so she was going to treat us all to lunch. Eating lunch at a sit-down restaurant? Just us kids? This was the greatest of all treats. There was nothing quite as liberating as being able to walk into the grownup world, without parents, and be treated as an equal. But that’s what money does.

The three of us sauntered into the restaurant, smiled at the waitress, and asked if we could have the booth by the window. Nothing makes a dining experience more enjoyable than stretching out in your own private booth. I mean, if I wanted to sit at a regular old table, I might as well eat at home.

The busboy brought us all glasses of ice water, which we greedily gulped down, barely taking a breath. Our waitress asked if we were ready to order, and I waited to follow Ruth’s lead. Ruth scanned the menu quickly, and said, “Yeah – let me have a cheeseburger, some fries, and a Coke. Oh yeah, and a chocolate malt.”

Sol and I looked at each other, smiled, and told the waitress we would have the same thing. If we were getting a free lunch, we might as well make it a good one.

We gorged ourselves on huge diner cheeseburgers, and laughed as we shared stories. Ruth slurped on her malt and, with a mouthful of fries, said, “Some chick tried to rob me today. But I flew past her ass. She tried chasing me, but couldn’t keep up. I bet she thought I couldn’t go fast in that cart. Heh.”

Solomon let out a loud laugh and said, “Yeah, with those giraffe legs of yours, you should be able to peddle fast.”

Ruth tossed a fry at his head, and said, “You should talk, with your skinny scrawny bony-ass sissy girl body.”

That quickly shut Sol up, because he was very sensitive about his weight, or lack thereof. He was thirteen, and although he was taller than most boys in his class, he weighed less than a lot of the girls on the gymnastics team. Every now and then he tried drinking some of his brother’s protein powder shakes to pack on some pounds, but to no avail. It was a constant source of teasing in his household.

As we picked at the last of our fries and chomped on the remaining pieces of ice in our Cokes, the waitress came by with the bill. It lay conspicuously on the table for a while, wedged between my plate and Ruth’s. After about ten minutes, I noticed Ruth fidgeting, and looking around. I held my breath as I saw a frighteningly familiar grin draw across Ruth’s face.

She wiped her lips, threw her crumpled napkin on the table, and laughed as she said, “I’m not paying for this.”

[To Be Continued]

Foster Files Part IV: Bullies

A few blocks away from the house I grew up in was a small creek that fed into a lagoon. My friends and I used to spend hours playing in the creek, turning over rocks and trying to catch bluegills with our hands.

One day, my friends Don, Stevie, and I were hanging out down by the creek catching crayfish. We found an empty coffee can in the creek and were using that as a bucket to hold the crayfish in as we caught them. While Don and Stevie were wading in the water, two boys saw us and came down to see what we were doing. They were on the opposite side of the creek from me, and I remember feeling a little worried as they walked over because I saw them pointing at my friends and whispering to each other as they came closer.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” one of the boys yelled.

Don looked over at Stevie, and then without looking up said, “Nothing. We’re just trying to catch stuff.”

“Well, who said you could do that? I didn’t tell you that you could catch anything here. How old are you punks?”

I told them we were eleven, and that we came down there all the time to catch things.
The shorter boy picked up some rocks and started throwing them into the creek next to Stevie, splashing water all over him. He said that since they were thirteen, they could tell us what to do. He tried spitting on Stevie, but missed. Then he told my friend Don to dump out the can with the crayfish in it.

Don looked up and said, “We’re not bothering anybody. We’re just catching crayfish.”

The boy sneered at Don and said, “I said, dump out the can or I’ll come down there and beat the crap out of you.” Then he picked up a big clod of dirt and threw it at Don’s head.
Don quickly dumped the crayfish out and started to walk toward my side of the creek.

“Ha! Look at the little sissy! What? Are you gonna cry? I didn’t even kick your ass – yet!”

Feeling slightly safer since I was a girl, and on the opposite side of the creek, I said, “Well, wouldn’t you be scared of kids two years older than you?”

The bigger kid said, “Hell, no. I’d beat the crap out of them, too.”

Hmm. Let’s see. Who did I know that was two years older than these bullies? Of course! The Fosters! This was my cue to call in the cavalry. Don and Stevie climbed up to my side of the creek and went home. I quickly ran over to the Fosters’ house and found Aaron and Sol sitting on the porch eating Popsicles. At the time, Aaron was twelve and Sol was about fourteen. Not quite two years older, but I figured he’d do just fine.

I told them that some big kids were picking on my friends and me down by the creek, and that they said they could beat up anyone – even older kids.

“But you could totally beat them up,” I promised.

That was all the encouragement the Foster boys needed, so they chomped down the last bites of their Popsicles and ran down to the creek with me. Before he left, though, Aaron grabbed a broken hockey stick that was laying in their front yard, just in case I had underestimated the bullies’ strength. When we got there, the two bullies were walking on the big rocks in the creek, looking into the water where Don dumped the crayfish.

After quickly sizing up his opponents, Sol was the first to act. He stepped down onto the rocks and said, “So why are you picking on my friends? They said you made them dump out their crayfish, and said you were going to beat the crap out of them.”

Before the kid on the rocks could answer, Sol quickly walked over to where he was and pushed him into the water. It was only about a foot or two deep, but got the kid’s shoes all soaking wet. The soggy bully jumped up onto the other side of the creek, and Sol and Aaron immediately followed.

“Jenny said you said you aren’t afraid of anybody, and that you’d even beat up older kids. Well I’m fourteen. Why don’t you come here and kick my ass?”

The bullies started to slowly walk away and said, “We didn’t say that. We just told them to put the crayfish back in the water.” Sol was never one for conversation, so he grabbed the tall kid by the back of his hooded sweatshirt and yanked him to the ground. Aaron went after the short kid and tackled him to the grass as well.

“You like picking on little kids? See how you like it!”

Then Sol grabbed a big handful of grass and dirt and told the tall kid to eat it. When he wouldn’t, Sol grabbed the boy’s head and shoved the dirt into his mouth. Aaron must not have been feeling overly creative, because he told the shorter kid to eat some willow leaves that were on the ground by the creek. Then he grabbed a whole pile of them and jammed them into that kid’s mouth.

As the four of them were wrestling around on the ground, I just remember quietly standing on the other side of the creek and feeling very safe and protected. Like justice had been served. But then something happened. As the boys tried to spit out the dirt and leaves from their mouths, the taller one started to cry. Not a lot, but a few tears were coming down his face and mixing with the dirt smeared on his cheeks.

Then, the shorter one said, “We’re not thirteen – we’re only eleven. We’re in fifth grade. I’m sorry we picked on your friends. We were just joking around.”

Aaron and Sol could see that there was no more fun to be had with these two boys, so they gave them both one final shove goodbye, and then walked across the rocks to my side of the creek. As the Fosters walked home, I watched these broken bullies wipe their faces on their shirtsleeves.

Revenge didn’t feel like I thought it would. I thought I’d feel happy that someone taught these mean kids a lesson. They threatened to beat up my friends when we weren’t doing anything but minding our own business, having fun on a summer day. But watching them just made me feel kind of sad. And guilty.

I still thought the kids deserved to be scared since they were so mean to me and my friends, but seeing them cry, and admit that they weren’t as old or as tough as they claimed to be really bothered me. I guess I learned something that day that most adults already know – bullies are just scared little kids, desperately hoping that no one calls their bluff.

Foster Files Part III: Grounded

The Fosters were the kind of family that always had broken down cars in their driveway and old mattresses behind their garage. As kids, playing in old cars was a blast, but I never really understood the true appeal of an old mattress, until one weekend when both my brother and I were grounded. Matt was 14 and I was about 12. I don’t really even remember why we were grounded, but it must have been something pretty bad, because my parents rarely grounded us.

One summer day, Ruth and Aaron Foster stopped by to see if my brother and I could hang out with them later that night. They wanted to go to a movie and maybe hit the video arcade for a few games of Galaga. I had to tell them that unfortunately, both Matt and I were grounded, so there was no way we could go out with them.

Now, the Fosters were very single-minded, so when they got an idea in their heads, they pretty much wanted to stick with it. Their immediate response was to tell us to just sneak out. Sneaking out was standard procedure in the Foster household, but it really wasn’t all that difficult for them since their parents never seemed to really care where their children were.

My parents, on the other hand, were active members of Neighborhood Watch, and my mom was the Treasurer of the PTA. These were people who took pride in knowing where their children were at all times, so sneaking out was a bit more difficult for us. Besides that, my mother was a bit of an insomniac, so she would always have to watch TV or read on the couch until she fell asleep, and then sometime around 2:00am she would wake up and head upstairs to her bedroom.

So, although a daunting task, my brother and I were never ones to shy away from a challenge. The Fosters hatched a plan that, at the time, seemed airtight. At around 9:00pm, my brother and I stuffed our beds to make it look like we were still in them, just like we had seen all the kids in movies do when they’re running away from home. I had a ventriloquist dummy that I decided would suffice as my body double, so I shoved him under my covers with a few additional stuffed animals for legs.

Thank god my parents never made a habit of checking in on our rooms at night because a) no one would have believed this was me and b) if they had pulled back the covers, they would have found a demonic grinning ventriloquist dummy, and I’m certain they both would have had massive coronaries on the spot.

Next, the Fosters dragged a ratty, stained, rain soaked mattress from their back yard down the alley, and into our yard. They threw the mattress on the ground next to our sunroom, and then threw stones at our windows. This was our signal to come out onto the sunroom roof. My brother’s bedroom was in the remodeled attic, and my bedroom was directly below his on the second floor. Right outside of my bedroom window was the roof of our sunroom.

It was easy enough for me to step out onto the roof since I just had to climb through my window. My brother, on the other hand, had to hang out of his third story window and drop about five more feet to land on our slanted sunroom roof without tumbling off the edge. In retrospect, I’m sure he could have just quietly snuck out of his room into mine, but dropping from his window lent a real Mission Impossible feel to the evening.

Phase One was complete. Now we had to jump off our sunroom roof onto the mattress, and skulk off into the night. My brother was wise beyond his years even at 14, and he knew that if he jumped first, I would chicken out and climb back into my room. So, he made me hang off the gutter and drop onto the mattress first. I was a little freaked out by this, and had a hard time letting go, until I heard Matt scream, “Let go, you big baby! You’re gonna rip the gutter off!”

That was all the positive encouragement I needed, so I let go and dropped down onto the mattress with a resounding slosh. My brother quickly followed, and then we were off on our adventure. By this time, it was too way late for us to get into a movie, so we decided to buy snacks at the corner grocery store. After fueling up on Twizzlers and Funyuns, we spent the rest of the night carousing around the neighborhood, playing ding-dong ditch, and climbing onto the roof of the Catholic high school that was a few blocks away.

As it got close to the time my mom would be heading up to bed, Matt and I crept outside our living room windows to see if she was still on the couch. She wasn’t, so we waited outside for about another 20 minutes just to make sure she was in bed, and then went back in through the front door. We snuck back into our beds, filled with pride at the stunning caper we had just pulled off.

Yes, this plan was airtight all right. The Fosters dragged the mattress out of our yard and back into theirs, and no one was the wiser. Airtight. That is, of course, if they had actually remembered to drag the mattress back. Which they didn’t. The next morning my brother and I went about our business like any other weekend, until we heard our mom yell for us to come outside. We pulled ourselves away from the TV long enough to catch a glimpse of her through the sunroom windows.

Oh crap.

So of course, Ruth and Aaron never took the mattress back. It lay exactly where they left it – on top of the smashed up pile of leaves and petals that used to be my mother’s flower bed.

Oh crap.

Matt and I must not have been overly observant as kids, because we never really paid much attention to the fact that there was a big flower bed outside of the sunroom. Nor did the Fosters as they plopped the water-logged mattress down on top of them.

Just as we were almost ready to be released for good behavior, we each had another week tacked onto our sentences. The good thing is that my mother just thought we were jumping off the roof onto the mattress for fun. She never figured out that the mattress was just a means to an end, and that we had spent an entire night running around the neighborhood like a bunch of hooligans. Had she known that, I might have spent the better part of my youth staring out that bedroom window, scratching lines in the wall to mark time, and holding on to the distant memory of the thrill I felt that day I let go of the gutter and tasted freedom.

Foster Files Part II: Breaking & Entering

A few doors down from the house I grew up in lived an old Russian man named Mr. Kozlov. He spoke very little English, lived alone, and had an enormous vegetable garden in his front yard. His house was set way back on the lot, all the way to the alley, so almost his entire yard was garden.

Mr. Kozlov wasn’t particularly friendly, never waved hello to the kids on bikes, and didn’t hand out Halloween candy. In retrospect, we probably just thought he wasn’t nice because he struggled with the language, and wasn’t all that up on silly American customs like trick-or-treating. Because none of us had ever gotten to know him personally, though, it wasn’t exactly big news when we found out that he died of a heart attack at the age of 87.

There really wouldn’t be much more of a story to tell about Mr. Kozlov if it hadn’t been for the total lack of respect for authority that defined my rowdy neighbors, the Foster kids. Apparently, not long after Mr. Kozlov had died, Solomon Foster was riding through the alley when he decided to try to open the side door to Mr. Kozlov’s house.

Surprisingly, it was unlocked. Word spread like wildfire throughout the Foster clan, and before long, Ruth, Sol, Aaron, and I were walking through a dead man’s house. I don’t even remember how long he had been dead – it was probably only a few months. His house smelled kind of like bread, but spicier.

We were shocked to find that all the utilities were still hooked up – we had electricity, heat, stove, everything. It was early summer, yet for some reason we decided to turn the heat up to 80 degrees. Maybe just because we could. We set up camp in his home, walking around barefoot and in shorts, sweating as we explored his house.

The basement was filled with shelf after shelf of cans, jars, and bottles of mysterious blobs preserved in liquid. Solomon claimed that Mr. Kozlov was a former Nazi, and that these jars contained the brains and organs of his victims.

“This is a human liver, I bet! Eat it – I dare you! Just open it and smell it!”

He shoved the jar at Ruth.

“Mr. Kozlov was Russian, not German, you dumb ass! And you eat it!”

When we weren’t daring each other to eat or drink some of the concoctions in the basement, we made field trips to the corner grocery store, pooling our allowances to stock the kitchen with barbeque potato chips, hot dogs, and ice cream sandwiches. It was like having our own summer home. Ruth brought paper plates and napkins from home, I brought a radio. We all danced to Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” as we gorged ourselves on hot dogs that had been boiled on a dead man’s stove.

“Ohhh didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I hear you cryin’…”

One day, just as we were packing up our things to go home, a man in a short-sleeved shirt and a tie walked in the side door. Stopped in our tracks, we all just stood there silently. I had no idea who this man was – family, realtor, lawyer, police? It didn’t seem like our place to ask.

“What the hell are you kids doing in here?! Do you know what breaking and entering is? That’s a felony!”

Without missing a beat, I wiped the potato chip crumbs off my lips, and in my widest eyed, sweetest girl voice said, “The door was open. Our cat was having kittens and she came in here. We just came in to find her.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. Why don’t you show me where the kittens are?”

Fortunately, there actually was a stray cat in the house that just had kittens. We found her in the attic on one of our many explorations. I led the man upstairs to the kittens, and he seemed a bit disappointed that he hadn’t caught me in a lie. I just prayed that he hadn’t seen the pot full of hot dogs we had left on the stove.

After escorting us out, the man locked up the house, and our summer swingers’ pad was gone for good. The Fosters and I had many an adventure after this one, but I never recall a hot dog tasting as good as the ones we boiled on a dead man’s stove.

Foster Files Part I: Run Jen Run!

Growing up, I spent my entire childhood in the same house. It was the nicest house in the worst neighborhood, which according to realtors, is not exactly what you strive for. As the neighborhood deteriorated, most of my close friends moved away to nicer, safer neighborhoods. My family stood firm, though. I lived across the street from a beautiful park, and across the park from my school. The neighborhood had character, and my parents weren’t ready to concede and move to some pre-fab subdivision.

We just learned to deal with a few minor inconveniences that you don’t encounter in the nicer neighborhoods: we had to take our garden hose in every night or it would be stolen, and if we didn’t chain the trash cans to our garage, they would end up dumped all over our back yard. Also, about every six months, someone would smash the side view mirror off of one of my parents’ cars, but I guess you learn to adjust to these things.

So, with my list of close pals slowly dwindling, my parents had no choice but to allow me to expand my circle of friends and reach out to the wild family who lived at the opposite end of the block – the Fosters. The Fosters were unique in many respects, not the least of which was their size. I don’t mean their physical stature, although they were extraordinarily tall and thin. I mean size in terms of quantity – the Fosters had eleven children. Mrs. Foster was a very religious woman – fundamentalist Christian – so all her children’s names were chosen from the Bible. From oldest to youngest, they were: Noah, Mary, Diana, Caleb, Ruth, Solomon, Aaron, Isaac, Martha, Sarah, and Samuel.

Mrs. Foster claimed to have read the Bible cover to cover at least 20 times, and often tried to prove this to me by literally backing me into a corner while quoting scriptures. And she swore that a mole on her cheek disappeared after she touched it during a particularly moving episode of the PTL Club. But when you’re nine years old, you can overlook a lot of insanity if it means having eleven friends to hang out with at a moment’s notice.

It seemed as though the Fosters were genetically designed for troublemaking. The whole family had loud, booming voices, which they often used to yell idle threats and mean names at people walking by. Almost all of the Foster kids were extremely lean and muscular, although they rarely had to use their muscles thanks to their greatest gift, which was their speed. The Fosters were all unusually tall, and at least three-fourths of their bodies were legs. This gave them great speed, which was a good thing since they were often being chased. In fact, when I think back to my youth with the Fosters, much of it was spent running – from police cars, from neighborhood bullies, from angry siblings. When you hung out with the Fosters, you would inevitably end up running from someone.

I remember one particular evening – I was about ten and had convinced my mother to let me sleep over at the Foster’s. Sol, Aaron, and I were hanging out in the park on the swings, minding our own business for the most part. It was far too late for us to be out – probably around 10:00pm – but we were thrilled to be breaking the rules, swinging after hours, and seeing who could go the highest. I would lean my head back as the swing descended, and stare up at the stars. It made me a little queasy to see the ground coming toward me, but I loved it.

Aaron interrupted our late night swing session by alerting us to the fact that four big kids were coming toward the park. Now, to back up a bit, part of the reason that the Fosters were always running from people is because they had a complete inability to shut their mouths when they should have. It was almost as if they needed the adrenaline rush of fear to keep themselves going. And because of their speed, they knew full well that they could outrun almost anyone in the neighborhood.

True to Foster form, Sol yelled something at the boys that set them off and running toward us. They were a good 100 yards away from the park, but judging by their pace, they would reach the swings in no time. Aaron shoved a handful of rocks in his pocket, and took off running the opposite direction. Sol quickly followed, leaving me sitting in the swing alone. I leapt off the swing, jumped the park fence, and started off after Aaron and Sol.

Now, my people are not runners. I come from Sicilian and German stock, and you’d have to look far back in the record books to find an Olympic medal winning Sicilian or German on the track team. Our hips are too wide, legs too short, lungs too underdeveloped for such athletic feats. So whenever I would accompany the Fosters on one of their many trouble-filled adventures, I usually had to rely on Ruth to grab the back of my shirt and drag me along to keep up with her pace. Without Ruth there, I was left to my own devices, which were shoddy at best.

I ran as fast as my scrawny legs would push me, looking back at the group of boys who were rapidly gaining on me. Aaron and Sol were mere silhouettes in the far distance, and by this point, they weren’t even running at full speed anymore. Sweat started to trickle down my back, and I breathed in deeply to try to alleviate the sharp pain I felt underneath my ribs. As I ran, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of anger. I was angry at the Foster boys for starting this and then abandoning me, angry at myself for sneaking out so late, and angry at these kids I had never met who were rapidly gaining on me.

After only ten minutes or so of running at top speed, my legs were on fire, and I couldn’t catch my breath. At that moment, I decided that nothing these boys could do to me could be worse than the excruciating pain I was in. Plus, I was hopeful that once I caught my breath, I might be able to talk my way out of any sort of physical altercation.

I slowed my pace to a trot, then a walk, then finally just stopped dead in my tracks and turned to face my pursuers. All four boys were running straight toward me, at full speed. With my hands on my hips, I put my head down a bit to catch my breath, waiting for their impending arrival. As they finally caught up with me, I was shocked to see them breeze right past. They never stopped, didn’t even make eye contact, but just kept on running to catch Aaron and Sol.

I turned around just in time to watch them disappear around the block. While nursing my sore ribs and hobbling back to the Foster’s house, I was struck by this feeling of confused relief. I guess sometimes when you stop running from the things you’re afraid of, they just pass you right by.