Arky Fencher stood at his end of the courtyard with a smear of annoyance on his face. It was a long way to the other end and he had plenty of counting to do, not what the 12-year-old had in mind that morning.
“Count each of the squares by ten,” said his older brother Lenny, “and I’ll write them down. Each square is exactly twelve inches wide, so this way we can calculate the total square footage, OK?”
“Jeez,” said an annoyed Arky. “Why does he need to paint the ground anyway? If Marie spots me doing this I’ll kick yer butt!”
“Super Joe must have a good reason, or he wouldn’t be in charge of the whole building,” said Lenny. “And the only reason Marie knows you exist is she copies answers off you.”
Joe Marmo was the building superintendent, a year-and-a-half off the boat from Italy, with an accent thicker than the Sicilian pizza at Tina’s.
He had told the boys that he needed to know the square footage to get the right amount of paint.
“It’s a waste of time, bub!” complained Arky. He had called Lenny “bub” — instead of “brother” — ever since he was about two years old.
“Don’t whine,” Lenny scolded. “He’s paying us $3 each! That’s enough for you to get a large milkshake. Or a hot dog…with money left over!”
Arky put an “X” on each tenth square with a chalk mark as instructed, while Lenny kept track on a piece of paper.
“Besides,” said Arky, “your brain could use the exercise.”
Arky sighed. “But look how far we have to go!” The idea of painting cement just didn’t make a bit of sense to him. Fortunately for the brothers, three large rectangular gardens took up most of the courtyard, or else it would have been double the counting.
Right above the boys’ heads a window opened up and Arky’s classmate and best friend Santi popped his head out.
“Hey Arky,” said Santi. “My science book doesn’t say anything about sea monkeys. You’re full of it!”
“Heck no,” said Arky. “They come in a coin machine at John’s candy store. They’re small, but they’re as real as Lenny’s zits.”
“Hilarious,” said Lenny. “You should audition downtown at the Laff Factory.”
“It would beat doin’ this! I’ll be at Chen’s later on….if I ever finish,” Arky told Santi. “I bet he’s seen sea monkeys!”
“Just so you know,” said Lenny to his brother, “they’re not anything like real monkeys.
“Well,” replied Arky, “some of them have four eyes, just like the chicks who like you!”
A half-hour (and 986 squares) later, the boys squatted at the opposite end of the courtyard, when Bert Bloss bounded out the front door of his building. Burt was Lenny’s age, but much bigger, and a notorious wiseguy/bully. Much like his dad, who once got pretty far in Golden Gloves boxing.
“Hey dirt-bags, what happened?” Burt asked. “Did one of you lose your marbles? Ha ha!” He raced out the archway, not waiting for a comeback.
Arky’s face turned bright red.
“Just ignore him,” said Lenny to his brother.
Arky liked to imagine accidents happening to people he did not like.
GRAPHIC: “In local news, neighborhood bully Burt Lott fractured his arm when he tripped in the archway.”
The boys brought the information to Mr. Marmo’s front door on the street. The super counted out six $1 bills, putting big smiles on the boys’ faces.
“Are you gonna be smott like your brudder?” Mr. Marmo asked Arky in his thick Italian accent. “Maybe one day you gonnah be an arky-tek, ha ha!”
Lenny winced at the bad joke.
“See you later, bub! I’m going to the candy store!” Arky pocketed his money and took off.
“Stick around the block,” warned Lenny. “Or you’ll be in big trouble, you hear?”
Arky raced a full block to the opposite corner to John’s candy store.
Across the street was the Dreamy Pies Works, which cranked out thousands of pies a day. The smell made him hungry.
When he got to the candy store was empty.
“Gimme a pretzel,” Arky told John, the owner, handing him a dollar. John had a newspaper opened up on the red formica counter. He took a thick pretzel off the stack spindle and gave it to Arky along with his change.
“Here you go,” said John. “Lemme guess, you’re gonna try for the sea monkeys again, huh?”
“You bet!” said Arky. He went over to the coin machine and put in a quarter. “Darn it!” complained Arky, when a mini-flashlight came out. “I never get them!”
Arky walked a few stores over to the Fish Hole, Mr. Chen’s pet store. His was the smallest shop on the block, stuck between the laundromat and the barber shop. Ever since the shop opened the previous fall, Arky was a frequent visitor. He was fascinated by the rows and rows of bubbling aquariums with their colorful gravel and bright lights. Mr. Chen liked Arky’s enthusiasm and allowed him to visit whenever he wanted, even to help feed the fish and reptiles.
“Hi Mr. Chen,” Arky greeted the old man, closing the door behind him. He looked around excitedly. “Did you get the seahorses?”