Under The Unionville Bridge
By Chris Garvey
When I was 11, I played basketball, had a bowl cut and wore French-cuffed Bugle-Boy khakis. When I was 12, I smoked cigarettes, grew a mullet and wore all black. It was an abrupt change but at that age, time moves quickly.
In that year I abandoned friends whose lives were for-the-most part functional and replaced them with kids whose lives were for-the-most part in the throes of domestic turmoil. One positive aspect of adolescent misery: it's not hard to meet other 'bad influences' to bond with.
We were a gang. We wore our hair long over hoop earrings, denim vests over black leather jackets, tight jeans and work boots. Scowls and cigarettes defined us. We'd loiter for hours at The Whole Donut, drinking coffee, flicking Zippos, perfecting our smoke rings, inhaling butane and playing UNO and bloody knuckles until we got kicked out.
Then we'd go under the Unionville Bridge to skip rocks, break bottles, graffiti, wrestle, chew tobacco, put cigars out on our arms, chain-smoke cigarettes and drink beer and fortified wines with the town drunks, mostly Wild Irish Rose with a guy named Buddy Bendt.
I remember one day after school we tortured an eel. It was fall but still humid so our sweatshirts were tied around our waists. Piles of leaves clung to cigarette packs and plastic bags on the riverbank, trees were stripped bare for the winter ahead and while we should've been heading home for supper, 6 of us were looking for something to get into.
Across the river a red-bearded fisherman stood with the eel wriggling in his hands. All of us flew up the embankment and onto the street, racing across the steel bridge, ducking behind the abandoned Citgo on the other side and sliding down the hill of detritus to the water's edge.
Our brains reeling from beer, nicotine and inhalants, we stood in awe. If you've never seen one up close, eels are scary-looking, prehistoric and more menacing than your average sunfish. And since most of us never went 'fishing with dad,' and had never seen such a sight, we flocked around the fisherman asking him a shitload of questions.
"What the hell is it?...How old is it..Is it a girl or a boy?" His yellow-stained mustache smiled and a Pall Mall bounced between his lips as he answered our questions. Must have been the closest he ever came to being a science teacher.
My best and craziest friend was a kid named John Cavanaugh. He was a year older, a foot taller and 30 pounds heavier with white-blonde hair and blue eyes. He was a formidable foe to any grown man. He lived in a trailer on a horse farm on land his father bought when he came over from Ireland. The trailer was meant to be temporary but after a large amount of horse tranquilizer was stolen from the barn - by John's brother actually - the old man moved the family closer to the sought-after ketamine stash. They never left the trailer but after a nervous breakdown, his mom did, for good. Last time I heard, John had moved back after two years in prison.
Anyway, the fisherman removed the hook from the eel's gaping mouth and bent down to drop it back in the water. Before he could though, John grabbed the eel and ran back up the hill with it, over the bridge and down the other side to our little sanctuary under the bridge. We of course followed close behind.
The eel tried to wriggle free, it whipped back and forth violently but John's huge chapped hands wouldn't let go. The fisherman yelled at us from the other side of the river but we ignored him. John took a can of butane from his back pocket, laced it and lit it on fire. He laughed demonically as the eel's skin crackled from the flames and the smell hung in the air. Someone handed John a Snapple bottle, he squeezed the eel's head inside.
What looked like soy sauce squirted from the bottom side of the eel's stomach. It must have been filled with eggs and looking for a safe place to lay them. It had failed. John mocked the poor thing as its mouth snapped open in its final and frantic bid for survival. Growing bored, John smashed the eel's head over a rock and tossed it in the river. The climax of adolescent violence, the feeling of doing something you never imagined doing, it was over and as the desecrated eel floated downstream I remember wanting to be home doing my homework.
At that moment I realized I was far from after school get-togethers at friends' homes in nice neighborhoods, a long way from newly built McMansions where carpets were professionally cleaned and semi-cute moms rented movies and baked cookies with a smile. I was now just a punk kid under the Unionville Bridge killing a helpless fish, wondering how the hell I got there, realizing I could never go back.