"I'm going to throw this wagon out, George. You don't play with it anymore; you're a general now. It's just gathering dust in the cellar. And if you don't want that little hatchet you got for your birthday, I'll get rid of that, too. I don't want it just banging around the house. It's liable to cause more trouble."
I am hearing George Washington's mother speaking in a quavery, old-timy voice, filtering through the hazy mists of past ages. There in the case right in front of my eyes was a stylish, archaic, hunched-up kind of cart with big spoked wheels. You could even see vestigial flecks of ancient red paint. The card read:
TOY WAGON GENERALLY SUPPOSED TO HAVE BELONGED TO GEORGE WASHINGTON AS A CHILD. THIS PRICELESS RELIC HAS BEEN ALMOST CONCLUSIVELY AUTHENTICATED.
George Washington's little red wagon! My mind boggled at the thought of the Father of Our Country tugging his high-spoked wooden toy through the boondocks, his 18th Century overalls faintly damp, his 18th Century kid shoes trailing laces in the sand, on his way to becoming the most successful revolutionist in all history.
I moved among the museum exhibits, now deep in a maelstrom of contemplation, milting a new vein of thought that had never occurred to me. In the next case, resting on a chaste velvet-covered podium, lay a chewed and worn wooden top of the type commonly known among the wooden-top set of my day as a spikesie. For the unfortunates unfamiliar with this maddening device, which over the centuries has separated the men from the boys among kids, a spikesie is a highly functional top-shaped wooden toy, beautifully, malevolently tapered down to a glittering steel spikelike spinning surface.
I stopped dead in my tracks, unable to believe my eyes. I looked long and hard, peering intently into the shiny glass case at the squat toy that was displayed there. There was no doubt about it. This was no ordinary spikesie, but identical with a sinister breed of top that I myself had once encountered. Bending low over the exhibit, I examined the inscription:
UNUSUAL HANDMADE TOP. ORIGIN UNKNOWN. SAID TO HAVE BEEN OWNED BY THE YOUNG THOMAS JEFFERSON.
My God! Thomas Jefferson! The elegant, consummate product of the age of reason; architect, statesman, utopian, man of letters. I wondered modestly whether I could have shown Tom a thing or two about top spinning. After all, a Declaration of Independence is one thing; a split top is another. The top rested quietly on its podium, mute and mysterious. It was a dark, rich, worn russet color. I wondered what its name was and what battles it had fought for the framer of the American way of life, what battles it had fought in the distant past and perhaps would fight again.
As I gazed at the top, old spike wounds itched vaguely beneath my tapered Italian slacks - old wounds I had sustained in hand-to-hand spikesie combat with antagonists of my dim past. Well did I remember Junior Kissel's economical, slicing sidearm movement, his green top string snapping curtly as he laid his yellow spikesie down right on a dime with a hissing whir. Flick, on the other band - more erratic, more flamboyant - had a tendency to loft his spike-sic, releasing it after a showy, looping overhand motion a good two feet above the surface of the playing field. His top spun with an exhibitionistic, wobbling playfulness and usually bounced hesitantly two or three tunes before settling into the groove. I myself preferred a sneaky, snakelike, underhand movement, beginning at the hip, swinging down to around the knees, upward slightly, and then the quick release after a fast, whiplike follow-through. Flick was great to watch; Kissel, methodical and clean. I was deadly.
In my day, there were two types of top spinners: those who merely played with a top - dilettantes, haphazard, sloppy, beneath notice; and those to whom a top was a weapon in the purest sense, an extension of the will, an instrument of talent and aggression. Anything but a toy. I was one of that lonely breed. In combat, the top was used for only one thing: destruction. A top in the sweaty, tense hand of a real artist was capable of splitting his rival's top down the middle in the flickering of an eyelash.
I remember all too well the sinking sensation of total defeat when my first top skittered into the gutter, wobbling crazily like a drunken thing, in two distinct and irrevocable halves; and Scut Farkas, pocketing his sleek, ugly, black spikesie, strode away without so much as a backward glance. Then and there, the course of the next few years of my festering life was uncompromisingly set. In the secrecy of the basement, hour after hour, I clandestinely practiced every known motion, ranging from the rarely seen, difficult-to-master whiplash to the effete, delicate sidearm slice. Slowly my own true personal form began to emerge - until one spring day, in five minutes, I had halved the prized possessions of three of my closest friends. I knew then that I was ready for the big time.
Not quite. True, as a performer I felt fairly confident. It was the top itself that I lacked. To the untutored eye, I suppose, a top is a top - some red, some green, some blue. I find this hard to believe, but no doubt this is so to some. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also pitiable. To the uninformed, all bats used by ballplayers look alike. This could not be further from the truth. Major-leaguers make annual treks to Louisville, Kentucky, for the sole and express purpose of selecting the seasoned lumber, the delicate taper, the precise finish and exquisitely calculated weight of the one thing that stands between them and anonymity. They guard their personal weapons with a fierce and unremitting jealousy. Long winter evenings are spent by internationally known sluggers resting before the fireside, carefully, endlessly rubbing next season's lumber with oily pork-chop bones, until finally, by opening day, the cleanup man steps to the plate, whipping through the ambient air a personal and completely assimilated fusion of man and device. Mickey Mantle's bat is as different from, say, Tony Conigliaro's as twilight is from dawn. They may look a little alike, but they don't feel the same.
Scut Farkas' top, known throughout the neighborhood as Mariah, had at least 50 or more confirmed kills to its credit, as well as half a dozen probables and God knows how many disabling gashes and wounds. Rumor held that this top had been owned by Farkas' father before him, a silent, steely-eyed, blue-jawed man who spoke with a thick, guttural accent. He ran a junk yard piled high with rotting hulks of deceased automobiles and rusting railroad-train wheels. Some said that it was not a top at all, but some kind of foreign knife, and that only Farkas himself knew how to control it. It was not large, as tops go, being of a peculiar squat shape, a kind of small, stunted, pitch-black mushroom, wider above than most and sloping off quickly to a dark-blue, casehardened, glittering saber tip. Not only was the top strange in appearance; it spun with a mean, low humming - a truly distinctive, ominous note, a note that rose and fell, deep and rumbling, like the sound of an approaching squadron of distant Fokkers bent on death and destruction. Farkas, like all true professionals, rarely showed his top unless in anger. Skulking about the playground, his back pocket bulging meaningfully, just the trace of top string showing, Farkas was a continual, walking, living, surly challenge.
As a marble player, he had long since been barred from civilized games. His persistent use of blue-steel ball bearings, lightly polished with 3-In-One Oil, had reduced our heisty and spitsie games to a shambles, leaving the playground strewn with the wreckage of shattered comsies, precious aggies - and blasted hopes. Farkas played for keeps, in the truest sense of the word. An aggie belted by one of Farkas' cannonballs ceased to exist, dissolving in a quick puff of pulverized ash.
Farkas' secret was not in his choice of weapons alone. He had the evil eye. We all have seen this eye at one time or another in our lives, glimpsed fleetingly, perhaps, for a terrifying, paralyzing moment on the subway, among a jostling throng on the sidewalk in the midst of a riotous Saturday night, peering from the gloom through the bars of a death-house cell in a B movie at the Orpheum, or through the steamy, aromatic air of the reptile house. It is not easy to describe the effect that Farkas' eye had on the playground of the Warren G. Harding School. I know that such a thing is anatomically not possible, but Farkas' eye seemed to be of the purest silver-gray, totally unblinking and glowing from within with a kind of gemlike hardness. These eyes, set in his narrow, high-cheekboned weasel face above a sharp, runny nose, have scarred forever the tender psyches of countless preadolescents. Many's the kid who awakened screaming, drenched with cold sweat in the dead of night, dreaming wild nightmares of being chased over fences, under porches, through garages by that remorseless weasel face. The closest thing I have ever seen to the general quality, both physical and spiritual, of Scut Farkas was when, on a sunny afternoon on a Florida dock, I came face to face with a not-quite-deceased, eight-foot mako shark. Scut Farkas, at ten, was a man not to be trifled with.
He was the only kid I had ever heard of who rarely smoked cigars, cigarettes or corn silk. Farkas chewed apple-cured Red Mule Cut Plug. In class and out. As a spitter, Farkas unquestionably stands among the all-time greats. During class he generally used his inkwell as a target, while on the playground he usually preferred someone else's hair. Few dared to protest, and those who did lived to regret it. Farkas' glance boring gun-hard across the classroom carried a message to every male in the class, save one, at one time or another. It read: "I'll get you after school." The kid, knowing he was doomed, often wet his pants right there and then.
He had never been known to refer to any of his classmates by other than their last name only. The use of the first name somehow would have been a sign of camaraderie or weakness, and would have undermined his position as an unbending belligerent. The victim's last name was always followed by the same phrase: "Ya chicken bastard!"
His only known rival in pure thuggishness was the equally infamous Grover Dill. The two had formed an unspoken alliance, each recognizing the other as extremely dangerous - an alliance that held the rest of the kids in total subjugation.
As a competitive top spinner, Farkas was universally recognized as unbeatable. The combination of Mariah and Farkas' short, Whistling three-quarter-lash movement was devastating. He sacrificed accuracy for sheer power, like a fastball pitcher with a streak of wildness. When Mariah hit, there was no return.
Occasionally a challenger, getting wind of Farkas' overpowering reputation at Warren G. Harding, would show up at recess from some foreign school. A ripple of excitement would move quickly through the motley throng as the two battlers squared off. There was a strong streak of chauvinism among the Warren G. Harding students. It could be said that we felt, "Warren G. Harding, right or wrong" - except when Scut Farkas was facing down a challenger from, say, St. Peter's parochial school, or George Rogers Clark. Farkas did not carry the colors of Warren G. Harding on his back. Like all true outlaws, the only color he recognized was blood-red. The other guy's, of course.
Week after week, month after month, we stood by helplessly as Scut Farkas and Maria!' made wreckage of the best tops in Hammond, Indiana. Not only that; we were forced by a single scythelike sweep of his evil eye to applaud his victories. This was the unkindest cut of all. I remember the hated words rattling in my throat as I banged Flick on the back: "Old Farkas sure did it." Flick hollowly answering: ". . . Yeah."
Pocketing Mariah and hawking fiercely, Farkas would swagger sideways into the gloom of the boys' bathroom to look for somebody to hit. Another notch was added to his already well-notched belt.
This was the nature of my enemy as I practiced day after day in the basement next to the furnace, perfecting, honing, polishing my burgeoning technique. Why I did it, I cannot tell. Some men are driven to climb Everest, others to go over Niagara Falls in barrels or beach balls. Some are driven to wrestle crocodiles barehanded. I only knew that in the end there would be just Farkas and me, and our tops.
One thing was sure: To get hold of a top that could even stay in the same ring with Mariah, I would have to do better than the measly assortment that Old Man Pulaski kept in the candy case among the jawbreakers, the Juju Babies and the wax teeth. Pulaski's tops were not fighting tops. They were little-kid playing-around tops; weak, defenseless, wobbly, minnowlike, they were even used by girls.
"Do you have any other tops but them little ones?"
"D'ya wanna top or don'tcha?" Old Man Pulaski glared down at me from behind his bloody butcher's apron while the jostling knot of Lithuanian and Polish housewives clamored for soup bones.
"Yeah, but I got that kind."
"Here, how 'bout a nice red one?" He reached into the case, trying to hurry the sale.
"Ya got any black ones?"
"Aw, for Chrissake, black tops! Come on, kid, I ain't got no time to fool around!"
"Scut Farkas got one."
"I told Scut Farkas if he ever came in again I'd kick his behind. He didn't get no black top here."
"Well, he's got one."
"Ask him where he got it." He roared off back to the meat counter. Obviously, that was out of the question. Asking Farkas where he got Mariah was about like asking King Kong where he got his fangs. So I began methodically to visit every candy store, dime store, toy store - any kind of store where they might conceivably have tops. Every day on my paper route I sniffed and hunted. From time to time I even bought what looked like a promising challenger, but I knew deep down in my heart that none of them came close to Mariah. Some were better than Pulaski's, some worse. I even discovered all sorts of tricky, effete, frilly tops I had never before seen or heard of. This went on well through spring. Then, late one balmy day, slowly pedaling home on my Elgin bicycle - the pride of my life - its foxtails hanging limply in the soft air, my mind a good five light-years away, I came unexpectedly to the end of my search.
I was at least four miles beyond my usual range, in a run-down, rickety tenement section of town, near the roundhouse. The steady crash and roar of switch engines, the shrieking and booming of Monon freight cars went on 24 hours a day, seven days a week in this country. Even when the sun was out brightly, the skies here were gray.
Rarely got over this far. It was foreign territory. I pedaled aimlessly along the dingy, dark street, the curbs lined with elderly, disreputable automobiles, reading signs as I went. For the first few years after you really learn to read, you read everything in sight carefully.
BEECH-NUT TOBACCO . . . BULL DURHAM . . . FISK TIRES . . . ROOM FOR RENT-RAILROADERS WELCOME . . . COMMIT NO NUISANCE . . CHILI PARLOR, HOT TAMALES . . . SHOESHINE . . . BARBERSHOP . . SNOOKER TABLES . TOTAL VICTORY NEWSSTAND AND NOTIONS . . . LUMP COAL . . .
Wait a minute. TOTAL VICTORY NEWSSTAND AND NOTIONS. It was a tiny, dark sliver of a shop, wedged in between two gloomy red-brick buildings, about the size of those places where a man sells celluloid combs and hunches over a lathe making keys. I swung over to the curb, squeaked on the brakes and dropped the bike in back of a derelict Hudson Terraplane. In front of the Total Victory, a faded-red-metal slotted newspaper display case leaned against a locked Coca-Cola icebox. The window of the store was impenetrable by human gaze, covered with a rich, dank patina of locomotive smoke, blast-furnace dust and the fine essence of Sinclair Oil from the nearby refineries. Faded posters hawking Copenhagen Snuff, Sweet Orr work gloves and Lava Soap, the mechanic's friend, completed the job. For a second or two, once inside, I couldn't see a thing, it was so dark and dingy.
"What d'ya want, sonny?" I peered around the high glass case containing stacks of snuffboxes and tablets, looking for the speaker.
"What d'ya want?" An ancient lady wearing a black shawl over her head, the way most Polish ladies did in our neighborhood, stared piercingly at me.
"Uh . ."
"D'ya want some orange pop, sonny?" She spoke with the slightest trace of a European accent.
"You got any tops?"
"Why, yes, sonny."
She disappeared behind the counter for a long moment. The shop's air was heavy with the scent of cabbage, garlic, tobacco juice and old clothes. Outside, a diesel engine blatted its horn thunderingly, rumbling off into the middle distance.
"How about these, sonny?"
She hoisted a cardboard box of tops onto the counter. I might have known it. She must have got these tops from the same place Pulaski got his - weak-kneed trifles that you saw everywhere.
"Uh, is that all you got?"
"How 'bout a red one, sonny?"
"Uh . . . You got any other kind?"
"Other kind? These are good tops, sonny."
"Naw, I got one a them. 'Bye."
I started to leave, as I had done so many times in the past, from every dinky candy store in town. Just as I got to the door:
"Hey, sonny, come back here."
Vaguely uneasy, I turned, one foot out on the sidewalk, the other on the greasy floor, my Keds ready to spring for the Elgin. She had disappeared into the back of the store behind a beaded curtain. She re-emerged into the murky gloom, carrying a cardboard Quaker Oats box. She set it down on the counter and began fishing in it with a withered claw. I waited, figuring she was going to spring a yo-yo on me, a toy for boobs and idiots, a sop for the untalented.
She pulled out a tangled mass of rubber bands, string, a couple of old clothespins and what looked liked a dead mouse. A switch engine breathed asthmatically in the ambient air outside - followed by muffled curses from the brakemen.
"Alta! Here she is!" She fished scratchingly, unable to grab whatever it was.
"I wouldn't sell this top to everybody, sonny."
"Yeah?" I was ready to jump.
"But I can tell you need a top, sonny." She cackled, her faint white beard glinting dully. Her hand snaked out of the can, clutching something round.
Great Scott! Cradled in her talons lay a malevolent duplicate of Scut Farkas' evil Mariah. A duplicate in everything spirit, conformation, size, everything except color. It was a dull, burnished, scuffed silvery-pewter, a color I had never seen on a top before. But then, except for Mariah, I had never seen a black one, either.
"It's been used, so it won't cost you much, sonny."
"How much?" I was almost afraid to ask.
"I'd say ten cents. Sonny. It's imported. She's a Gypsy top.''
I was In. It was one of those few moments when I was well-heeled, carrying a full 12 cents in my jeans. I forked over my two nickels as calmly as I could and took possession of what was to prove to he a historic find. I had at last come together with the greatest fighting top I had ever seen. It had an oily, heavy, solid feel, a nice comfortable heft like, say, a Colt snub .38 Special feels to the hand. I had already decided to call it Wolf.
"Good luck, sonny. Careful. She's a mean one."
Outside, the switchyard mumbled and muttered as a long, clanking string of flat beds rumbled toward the steel mill. With Wolf safely in my hip pocket, I pedaled furiously through the twilight toward Cleveland Street. The showdown had begun. I knew it. And somewhere in his lair, Scut Farkas must have known it, too.
That night after supper, under a dim yellow light bulb in the basement, next to the looming furnace that dominated the underworld below our house, I carefully wound my best top string around Wolf for the first time, pulling each loop hard and tight so that it lay flat against the preceding one, until finally Wolf was cocked and ready for action.
The string itself is highly important to a genuine expert. I preferred the hard, green, twisted cord that knotted solidly and got a good bite on the side of the top. This type of string was not easy to use, but once the technique was mastered, nothing could come near it. I had long since outgrown the standard wooden button for the end of the string, using instead a thin, one-inch mother-of-pearl button stolen from my mother's sewing basket. There were three extras stashed away in my dresser drawer for emergencies.
As the dim bulb illuminated a faint circle On the gray concrete floor, I scratched out a mark in the exact center of the pool of light for a target and stepped back into almost full darkness. I could smell the moldering old tires that my father kept hanging on the walls just in case someday lie might pick up another Hupmobile, and the mildewed Sunday papers of years hack that lay piled against the concrete-block walls, and the scent of countless generations of field mice who had lived out their lives in this basement, and the dusty Mason jars filled with grape jelly and strawberry preserves that lined the plank shelves under the steps, and the sharp rubber smell - bitter and strong of the coiled garden hose under the workbench, and the more subtle but pervasive aroma of a half ton of damp soft coal in the pitch-black bin, all held together with the soapy dankness of the drains, covered with perforated iron lids, that every week carried the family's used wash water back into Lake Michigan.
Deliberately and meticulously. I set Wolf down on the concrete floor for the first time. We were made for each other, just the way Mariah was made for Scut. The personality of tops is an odd thing. Mariah spun with all angry ferocity, a carnivorous drive that was despised and feared by everyone who had the bad luck to sec it in action. Wolf, on the other hand, was steadier, giving off a note uglier in pitch than Mariah but in some ways even more deadly. Mariah was a hot-blooded animal; Wolf, cold-blooded, snakelike. It would he an interesting meeting.
Again I laid die top precisely on the mark I had made, getting the feel of it, gradually letting myself out, feeling the full flush of rising excitement and mounting confidence as I gradually mastered the sinister Wolf. Even from the start, however, I had the sneaky, uneasy feeling that somehow I didn't really own this top. At first I felt that it was just because I was not used to it, little suspecting how right I was.
For two weeks, every night, Wolf and I practiced together in the basement. I had decided not to show hint to anyone until we could take on Farkas. No telling what might have happened if Farkas had heard of the existence of Wolf, and my plans, before I was ready to really give him a battle. Lien at that, I knew very well that my chances of breaking even with Farkas, let alone defeating hint, were as slim as the chances of that proverbial snowball in hell.
Hi public I began throwing my weight around with second-string tops, until the word slowly began to spread throughout the gym, the auditorium, the homerooms; till at recess time I could always draw a small claque of fans goading me on to belt some poor kid's top into the boondocks.
Since the day Farkas had publicly humiliated me, he no longer even deigned to note my topwork. Once, however, lie paused briefly, while twisting jack Robertson's arm behind him and belting him in the ribs with his free hand, to spit a thin spray of tobacco juice over my orange top, which had just landed neatly beside Delbert Bumpus' yellow ball-bearing spinner. He might have taken me on right then and there, but he was busy giving. Robertson his refresher course. Periodically, Farkas treated every kid in the class to a good, brisk, tendon-snapping arm twist. He shoved the victim's wrist tip between Ins shoulder blades, pushing up and twisting out, until the supplicant's face turned his eyes bugged out and his tongue lolled in agony, Farkas yelling:
"C'mon, you son of a bitch. Say it!"
. . Graaahhhkkk!"
"C'mon, say it! You son of a bitch." Farkas gives him two more degrees of twist and brings his knee smartly into contact With the tailbone of the sufferer.
"I said SAY it!"
The victim, looking piteously at the ring of silent, scornful watchers, including, no doubt, his ex-girlfriend, finally squeaked out: "I'm a chicken bastard."
"Say it again, louder."
"I'M A CHICKEN BASTARD!" With that, Farkas hurled the pain-wracked body violently into the. Stickers.
"Gimme a cigarette, Dill."
And the two of them would go skulking off toward the poolroom. He gave this refresher course about every six months, to all of us. We figure he kept a list and checked us off when our time came.
It was Friday. I knew that today would be the day. Somehow you know those things. It had rained all night. A hard, driving, -.Midwestern drenching downpour. Now, as I toyed with my Wheaties, I could feel the edge of danger mounting within me.
"Will you listen to me? I'm talking to you."
"Ah . . . What?''
"When I'm talking to you, I want you to listen. You sit there like you've got potatoes in your ears!"
My mother always had a thing- about my not listening; also dragging my feet. That drove her crazy. She always yelled that I didn't walk straight, either.
"How many times have I told you not to slump like that while you're eating? It isn't good for your stomach."
I. scrunched around in my chair, pretending I was listening to her.
"You'd better be home early this afternoon, because you've got to go to the store. I don't want to have to tell you again."
"How many times have I told you not to say 'Yeah'?"
This went on for about three hours or so, until I finally got out of the house, with Wolf stuck down deep in my hip pocket, with two other, lesser, tops in my front right-side pocket. I was loaded for bear.
It looked like rain as I walked through the alleys, over the fences, through the vacant lots on my way to the playground, kicking sheets of water up from muddy puddles, skipping bottle caps into new lakes as I moved toward the battlefield. A few other kids drifted in the same direction from the next block. The trees dripped warm water under the low, gray, ragged clouds. Off to the north, toward Lake Michigan, even though it was full daytime, the steel mill: glowed dark red against the low-hanging Overcast.
At last On the playground, I began my carefully thought-out scheme. "Hey, Kissel, how 'bout a little action?"
My top, the second-string orange one whistled out and landed with a click on the asphalt.
"How "bout it, Kissel?"
I scooped up the top. This time laying her down on one of the school steps, making it walk downstairs a step at a time, a neat trick from my basic repertoire. Finally goaded, Kissel pulled out of his pocket his lumpy little green top.
"I won't split it. Just nick it a little, Kissel. Don't worry."
A few onlookers had drifted into range. Sensing something important afoot. I was deliberately overplaying my hand.
"I'll even let you go first, Kissel. Come on - chicken?" I spun my top temptingly in front of Kissel's Indian Tread tennis shoes. He couldn't resist any longer. He bit hard.
"All right, smart guy." he said, "take that!" His green top narrowly missed mine. Bouncing on the asphalt and then settling down into its pedestrian buzz. Quickly I scooped up my top, wound it up and let him have it. His green toy careened drunkenly into the glitter.
"Sorry, Kissel. I just can't control it." I put my top back into my pocket, saying loudly:
"There's no good top men around here, anyway. Let's get up a game of softball."
I had made sure that before any of this happened, Grover Dill was in the throng. I knew only one thing could happen after such an outrageous remark. Even now his sloping shoulders, his thick neck. His ragged crewcut were disappearing in the direction of the alley behind the school where he and Farkas smoked cigars, chewed tobacco. Hatched plots and went over their refresher-course check lists. I must admit that I felt no little nervousness at this point, but it was too late to turn back. The die was cast.
Nervously I fished a "Tootsie Roll out of my pocket, and chewed furiously to cover up. Sure enough, not live minutes had passed - in fact, we were in the middle of choosing up sides for the softball game - when a tremendous wallop from behind sent me sprawling into a puddle. Instantly the mob surged forward. Looking up from the mud, I saw Farkas holding Mariah casually in his left hand, while spinning his greasy black top string like a lariat in his right. It whistled faintly.
"Get up, ya chicken bastard."
He quickly wound the string around Mariah and flicked it high into the air, catching it on his palm as it came down. She spun efficiently on his hand for a moment before he closed his talons ore her.
"Come on, get up."
Slowly I arose, pretending to be, contrite.
"What's the matter, Farkas? What did I do? Gee whiz!" A low snicker went through the multitude. They recognized the signs, the old familiar signs. To a man, they had uttered those words themselves from time to time. "They enjoyed seeing others in the trap.
"Get out ya top."
"GET IT OUT!"
A few drops of rain had begun to fall and it scented to grow darker by the sec ond. By now the crowd had grown, until we were ringed by a motley circle of noncommittal faces. Every kid on tin playground was in the crowd. The won was out. Farkas was getting someone and Farkas demanded an audience. Nervously, I pulled out my poor doomed orange top. There was no hope for I once Farkas zeroed in his sights. I had carefully planned this sacrifice.
"We'll flip for firsties." Farkas barked his eyes cold, Mariah resting at the ready.
"Flip, Dill. Heads."
His crony spun his famous two-headed nickel into the gray air.
"Heads. You win, Scut," Dill snarled in my direction.
The crowd murmured ominously, bur stilled instantly when Farkas glanced quickly around to spot who the wise guys were.
I wound my orange top tightly, dug my feet as hard as I could down on the asphalt. Using my underhand sweep fast and low, I laid her down a good 15 feet away.
Farkas half crouched. Mariah digging into his grimy thumb, the rusty metal washer he used for a button jabbing out between his fingers. His arm jerked clown and out, the string snapped, black Mariah struck. That is, she missed, by less than an inch. The two tops spun side by side for a moment until I darted forward. Scooped untie up and backed off Before me, black Mariah sat toadlike growling moodily, while Farkas watched with ill-concealed contempt.
I decided to go in for the kill. Again my arm dropped, the orange toll streaked out. Heading straight for black Mariah's vitals. It was a good shot. Farkas knew it. He snarled low in his throat The crowd murmured excitedly as my orange top cracked smartly against Mariah - but wobbled off weakly among feet of the onlookers. Mariah did not budge.
"Spin it again. Ya chicken bastard."
Farkas picked up Mariah and waited for my next move. I knew this was it. I had missed my chance. But then, I wasn't counting on this poor top. My big mote was on the way.
I spun. Then, with his accustomed sardonic ease, the showboat attitude he always displayed when picking up a scalp, Farkas neatly cracked my top into kingdom come. The MO splintered halves clattering crazily as black Mariah licked her chops, her deadly spike sending up a thin spray from the wet pavement.
By habit or tradition, the multitude indicated its approval of Scut's victory:
And other sickening sounds.
Farkas casually picked up Mariah, turned his back on me and, followed by Dill, started to walk away, the crowd parting before them. It was now!
My hand whipped down into my back pocket, quickly snaked Wolf out into the open, and in the twinkling of a moment, I had him wound amid instantly laid Wolf clown hard and solid. Its high, thin note. Steady as a dentist's drill and twice as nasty. Cut through the falling rain and stopped Farkas in his tracks. He turned and stared for a long instant. His eyes seemed to widen and lie actually, for a moment at least, appeared to grow pale - but even more baleful - as he recognized "Wolf for what it was. Between us, the silver-gray top sang tauntingly. I didn't say a word. Wolf said it all.
The crowd, sensing that something had happened, became hushed and tense. Somewhere off in the south a mutter of thunder rumbled and stilled. Casually, Farkas wound his top string about Mariah and, without a word, laid it down with a hard, vicious, overhand, cracking shot that missed Wolf by the thickness of a coat of paint. The two tops spun tog-ether with no daylight between, Mariah's bass rumble blending with the shuddering whine of Wolf in an eerie, angry duet.
Quickly I picked up "Wolf, and this time, with all the force I had, I went in for the big one. A silver-gray streak. Wolf blurred out before me. The crowd gasped audibly. Scut peered sharply down at Mariah as Wolf screamed toward the coup de grâce.
I couldn't believe it! Moving like a shadow over Mariah, Wolf missed by the thickness of a hair. Instantly, with a cackle, Farkas gathered in Mariah and, with a guttural laugh, sent her down the rails to finish off Wolf. I had seen him really angry at an opponent before. But nothing like this. I was afraid to look, half turning away - but the roar of the crowd told me that, incredibly, Mariah had missed!
It was my turn now. For once in my life, my nerves were like steel. This came, with infinite deliberation, I aimed and carefully let fly, a little higher, with more lift. A more deadly trajectory. Wolf rose and came down like a fiend of hell, swooping out of the sky like some gray eagle. But at the last impossible instant, it actually seemed to change course in mid-air, grazing Mariah slightly and skittering off into a puddle.
Again and again we attacked each other. First Wolf, then Mariah. Over and over we drove at each other's vitals. Something was happening that slowly began to dawn first on Farkas and me and then on the crowd. Incredibly, these two tops seemed to he afraid of each other. Either that, or they were somehow, in some way, mysteriously jinxed.
My arm ached. Farkas paused only to blow his nose on his sleeve before going back to the attack. It was growing darker; and it became obvious to its that at this rate, neither of us was going to scalp the other. The two insane tops, grimy, covered with mud, leaped like live things ricocheting, leapfrogging, hovering over each other, behaving in a way that no top before or since has ever acted. They hated each other; yet they seemed to be in league.
Dill, like all good toadies, tried everything he could to snaffle Wolf, kicking up mud when I spun. Going even to the extent of nudging me violently on two occasions, hoping to tip the balance. Farkas was game but growing angrier and hercer by the second, until finally he grabbed Mariah up from the scratched and scarred battlefield, looked at me with a long, searing gaze of hate and finally said, in a low voice:
"OK, ya chicken bastard. Let's play keepers."
Keepers meant that one kid would own both these tops, if his top could drive the other out of a circle made on the concrete with chalk. It was the final test of topping. Farkas was gambling pariah against Wolf. Dill quickly drew a lopsided circle on the concrete sidewalk that paralleled the asphalt. The hard surface was perfect for keepers.
"You go first," Farkas commanded.
Under the rules of the game, you were not allowed to strike your opponent's top directly, so it really didn't matter who went first. The tops themselves fought it out, walking each other around the circle until one or the other was pushed out.
I spun Wolf little realizing for the last time. It whistled out in a low arc, landing fair in the center of the circle. I put as much power on the spin itself as f could, cracking the string with a hard, flat snap. Wolf spun, waiting for Mariah, its spike ringing sharp and hard. Farkas spun pariah, and the two tops hummed within an inch of each other. Slowly they walked, closer and closer, as the crowd closed in. Closer and even closer, then finally - tick ... Tick ... Tick - they touched. Locked in mortal combat, hrst Wolf and then Mariah, then Mariah and then Wolf, ticking, humming in rising and falling cadence as they edged toward the dreaded line. Which would go out first?
For a few moments it seemed as though Wolf was doomed, but then, righting itself, it shouldered Mariah closer. Impossibly, the two seemed to pick up speed as they spun. Angrier and angrier they grew, until suddenly, with a lunge, the two tops smashed together, both reeling in tandem in a mad, locked, spinning embrace together over the line and out of the circle. The rain, falling steadily, pattered clown on the two hazy forms in the misty air.
Farkas, sensing victory, shouted: "YOURS IS OUT!"
He darted forward. The two tops continued to struggle and together they toppled over the curb, into the gutter, clicking, snarling crazily in the fast-running water, sending up sharp rooster tails of muddy foam. I moved as fast as I could to defend Wolf.
Suddenly, it was all over. The two tops, locked in mortal combat, disappeared down a sewer from Which rose a deep roar of rushing water. They were gone. Never before had any of us seen tops behave like this!
Farkas, his face white, his eyes glazed, stared down into the raging- flood through the grille of the drain. Then, without a word, he arose and, followed by Dill, walked off clown the street in the rain. I knew I would never see Wolf again. But somehow 1 knew that neither Wolf nor Mariah were hnished. They would go on. I don't know why I knew this, but I did. And I still do.
The crowd broke up into small knots. The great top days were over at Warren G. Harding School. A few weeks later, I rode over to the other side of town, looking for the Total Victory. One time, months later. I thought I saw it, but it turned out to be a place where they sold stuffed animals and rocking chairs. Off and on, for a while, I continued my search; but I never found it again.