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Scales of the Dragon. The shape of the Japanese Koto, a thirteen-stringed string instrument, is modeled after the Asian dragon. – Michelle DannerRead More (Untitled)
This gallery contains 1 item.
Scales of the Dragon. The shape of the Japanese Koto, a thirteen-stringed string instrument, is modeled after the Asian dragon. – Michelle DannerRead More (Untitled)
The first snow of the year never lasts. It usually starts with a few flakes dancing on the air like campfire ash, then graduates to a heavier pattern. I like when it slants. I like when it straightens, when it thickens, makes the world into a snow globe. I take the quilt from the bed and wrap it around myself, the pathetic old king with his robes trailing him across the floor boards. My breath makes mist on the window. When the display outside peters off, it will be bleak again, hard wind running through branches that bow in dumb servitude, the sky a defensive grayish blue, the clouds just bruises.
If only it would keep.
If only it would have intensified, swirled, buried the sidewalks, iced up the phone lines, blanketed all the side streets, cut visibility to the point that the mayor shut down all the major bridges and Penn Dot closed off sections of Route 95. If only that first December snow of 1978 could have been a storm instead of a tease.
I’d have been the first up for sure, bounding to the window facing the back yard.
Snow days meant extra cuddling time with Addie, two pots of coffee, watching the fuzzy RCA downstairs and getting the snow measurings at the airport, accident reports along the Schuylkill Expressway, all with the couch blankets pulled up to your chin and the dog with his snout across your lap. Safe and cozy. When you were a teacher, a snow day was a fun day, an “I don’t have to run day,” though the Bangles would preach it a few years later and trash what I had always thought a pure sort of paradigm for working Joe’s on the front lines, not shitty little rich girls air guitaring what would have been best kept in Daddy’s living room.
Snow days were times for watching stupid game shows, sipping Swiss Miss hot chocolate made extra syrupy, fluffy eggs and bacon and pumpkin pancakes, grilled cheese on seeded rye for lunch, marathon showers, Heinekens before noon.
Addie liked to screw on snow days. She was a short fireplug of a woman, strong thighs, awesome tits. When she let you do it from behind, she had a way of curving her back and turning you this wry look that drove you crazy with desire. She used to flip on Zeppelin 1, side 2, loud as shit when she knew you were going to bang her hard. She cried out those times, but not as loud as I did. She was a good girl. The kind that never bitched about money. Or laundry. Or the empty propane tank, or the bags of clothes you forgot to bring to Goodwill, or the old smelly rugs you rolled up and stuck in the garage because you never quite found time to make it to the dump. She looked good in a bathrobe, looked good cooking pepper steak in a wok. Made me want to drink at home. Love the world. Kiss the sky.
Danny had moved down into the partly finished basement and swore it didn’t smell even a little bit moldy. His old room became my “office” that Addie dolled up with an oak desk that had tons of drawers I didn’t use, a leather chair, and a cherry wood mini bar with compartments that I most certainly did use. We put the eight track in there, along with most of the pictures, some classic novels I swore I’d get around to reading some day, and all Danny’s trophies. Addie used to say that the kid moved down to the basement to exercise his independence, but I always thought it was the loud Zeppelin music.
I still walked down two flights of stairs every morning to give him a kiss, even though he was fourteen. Kissed him to wake him up, right on that hot part of his forehead with the little tan birthmark on the right side just below the hairline. I was also guilty of making that cone with my lips, putting it to his cheek and making “whub-whub” noises. Like Addie, he never bitched. I’d kiss him, give him the “whub-whub,” and he’d squint, crinkle up his nose, and mutter, “Hi Dad,” in that deep voice I was still getting used to.
On the morning that ruined us, I walked down the stairs and forgot to move around the creaks that might wake Addie unnecessarily. Chipster, our cocker spaniel, flopped his tail in the basket by the fridge, and clicked over to me across the linoleum, cute as a button with the exception of that doggie gunk gathered at the bottom of his eyes and those black lines underneath like the mascara of some weeping actress. I gave him a scratch behind the ears, opened the back door and put him on his lead. The snow was letting up a bit. Probably a false alarm, but teaching shop in the inner city was far better than working the construction trades out in the elements. Still had vivid memories of that shit like it was yesterday. I shut the door and went into the bathroom adjacent to the galley area for my morning dump, because when I dropped a deuce in the morning it was like a runaway train, and even though I was inconsiderate enough to lumber down the creaky stairs, I still had enough common sense to shit in a central area that wouldn’t waft linger-stink into the bedrooms.
Down in Danny’s “room,” things were a mess as usual. He had tried to make the place “his” with a black light, two lava lamps, and one of those spangly steel weeping willow desk lights from Spencers that looked like vegetation from Mars. I thought I smelled incense. Had to talk to him about that.
“Time to wake up, dum-dum.” I’d given him his man-kiss, and I ruffled his hair. Still blondish, all Addy’s side, though it had darkened quite a bit since his baby years. “Dan. Danny!” I got a mumble this time, and a half roll away toward the wall. He’d put up new posters. Had them in the shadows so I hadn’t noticed right away. Gloria Gaynor, John Travolta, and The Commodores. We’d really have to talk now. His Leo Sayer, Rod Stewart, and Gary Wright phase had been strange enough. I mean, all of our friends thought Addy and I were reckless in our seemingly endless hunger for new rock and roll, but I couldn’t bother myself with my own generation’s antiquated boardwalk, bee-bob, and show tunes slop. I loved music, loved it raw, and Addy was even worse with it. She’s gone to catholic school way back when, yeah, plaid skirt and knee socks, and when the Beatles changed everything she’d already tossed the tassel to the other side at Saint Joseph’s. She spent much of her adult life making up for what she’d missed.
As for Danny, he sort of rolled his eyes at our fascination. I would say “ Z.Z. Top, Aerosmith, Kiss!” and he would come back with “Kris Kristofferson.” Said he liked the lyrics. Me and Addy teased him about that one, and I even tried to get serious with it, show him that the lyrics didn’t stack up to the stuff he studied in school, that music wasn’t about lyrics anyway. His undisputable, one word answer took care of both sides of the argument.
Yeah. Disco sucked, but it was a tool for fourteen year old chick-magnets. One of those Catch-22’s that would never be solved.
“I don’t wanna.”
I laid down next to him, held him, said in his ear,
“You all right?”
Both of us together then, in, out, then break, a ritual so ancient I didn’t even recall when we first laughed about it. He sat up and chewed a hangnail.
He was really getting bigger. Even though his chest seemed narrow, it was developed, only in miniature, if you know what I mean. He was five foot five inches, but hadn’t quite grown into that height yet if that makes any sense. A true man-child.
He certainly didn’t get his looks from my side of the family, and sometimes we laughed and called him the postman’s child, simply because he didn’t quite favor Addy either except in the hair color category. He looked like a damned angel. His eyes were a bit almond shaped, and his features were simply portrait worthy. Straight nose, soft lips, high cheekbones, sharp eyebrows. Almost feminine, though I’d never have told him that to his face.
The girls loved him, and in turn most of his friends were female, sort of rare for a young teenager. The phone was constantly ringing, in fact, the closest thing to an ongoing fight in the house was Addy’s constant frustration with the fact that the line was never free in case Barbara was giving a ring to go to the mall, or Gina was phoning over to change the time for their magazine and Tupperware club.
“You didn’t hit off the tee last night.” I jerked my head back toward the netting I’d hung from the exposed pipes by the water boiler, his twenty nine ounce Louisville Slugger and the tennis balls lying around the black tee in the same places they’d been three nights running.
“I will tonight.”
I paused so he’d look at me.
“Your back elbow’s dropping.”
“I know, Dad.”
“If you don’t fix it now, you’re-“
“Gonna get burned by the high cheese, I know, Dad.”
We both laughed and he let me run my fingers through his hair for another muff-up. He wasn’t the brightest boy in school, all B’s and a few C’s like in Spanish, but I was the last one to blame him for not finding himself seated quite flush into the “school thing” like a perfect little o-ring in an engine. He was sharp as a tack when it came to people. He had insight, a way about him that got folks talking about themselves, I’d seen it. We’d go to a pool party, and without being familiar at all with the terrain, he’d entertain discussions with thirty year old women about dieting, gender equality, and spiritual healing. I’d pick him up from school on a day he stayed late for homework club, and he’d be at the edge of the pick-up rotary, buried deep in a three way conversation with a girl that had flood pants, earth shoes, a relief map of forehead zits, and horned rim glasses, right alongside a pretty little leggy cheerleader with bows in her hair. Damned straight. He single handedly made them dead equals, which they were, but most fourteen year olds didn’t see it that way is all that I’m saying. He had friends on the chess team and pals playing football, girlfriends who were shy and awkward and others wearing heavy foundation, big fake eyelashes, and pants so tight they could have been spray painted. He was “Mr. Social,” a bit book-dumb and a natural charmer; ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States.
“Dad,” he said.
“Yeah?” I had already gotten up and turned to go.
“I don’t think I’m gonna play ball this year. I’m tired of it.”
“No your not.”
I turned to go again. This time I made it to the stairs, which needed carpeting or painting, I still hadn’t decided.
“Yeah, big boy?”
He was staring at his hands.
“What if Bobby Fitz starts something?”
My neck went hot and I stalked back across the room.
“If he so much as touches you, Danny, look at me. He lays one single finger on you, I want you to throw.” I looked over my shoulder as if Addy had snuck down for a listen. I leaned in and my shadow covered him for a second.
“Now listen. That son of a bitch starts in, you finish it. You hit him square in the face and don’t stop until he’s down. You don’t take shit. From anyone. Start with that kind of noise, and it spreads around the school like brushfire. Next thing you know, you’re everybody’s pincushion, got it?”
I took a deep breath and stood straight.
“You think he’s gonna start in?”
He gave a short laugh.
“Crazy if he does.”
“I’ll kick his ass.”
Of course, we didn’t tell Addy any of this, because she more believed in the fairytale answer to the shit that went on between boys, the go-to-the-principal-about-it answer that got the offender suspended and simultaneously cut a crack so deep in your street cred that you wouldn’t recover until you hit your third year of college. Not the textbook response for a teacher, I know, but I was all too familiar with the reality in the foxhole. Did I preach this to my students? No. Did I have a problem with this contradiction? Not in the slightest.
And I’d never liked Bobby Fitz. Neither did Danny. Not really. The two of them had been hot and cold for years, same neighborhood, same classes, same little league. The kid lived with his mother at the end of our block in a rather dismal looking fieldstone flat top rancher with brambles growing all over the front walk, wild ivy on the picture window. I didn’t know where the father was, but mom smoked Marlboros, wore bandanas and scarves, and talked with this rusty voice usually saved for New York cliché’s in the theater world.
And plainly, Bobby Fitz was an asshole. We’d given him a shot, but he was the type that would be over the house for dinner and demand to Addy, “Put some ketchup on my burger.” She’d give the rhetorical, “Excuse me?” and he’d reply, “K-E-T-CHUP,” and roll his eyes. Then under his breath, “Ya deaf?” Addy and I would look at each other, wounded smiles of disbelief in our eyes, finally saying nothing, because I’d just been talking about spilling a beer trying to catch a fly ball at a Phillies game, and smack in the heart of the story I’d cursed a couple of times, bucking right up on the edge of propriety just to make Fitz feel like one of the boys. Now, it seemed like it was in the air that maybe I brought this on, keeping it all too loose or something.
One time when I was late because I had lagged back at school running a gentleman’s club the mentor hadn’t shown up for, she claimed Fitz had been over looking at baseball cards, playing some darts. Supposedly, he had burst into the kitchen and demanded a glass of water. Addy had gone to the tap, and he’d muttered behind her back,
She’d called him on it, and he’d had the brass balls to say,
“Well, can I say pussy? Snatch? Poontang?”
She’d asked him to leave, and he’d stood there, eyes drifting slightly in what Addy called “the crazy face.”
“Pussy, pussy, pussy.” Then he swiped over a bottle of cooking sherry before waltzing on out through the door. In retrospect, I should have been in his mother’s living room that night, nipped it in the bud, but I sort of figured the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and my words would fall on dead ears. I simply told Danny that this particular sixth grader was never to cross the threshold of my home again, and Danny quietly agreed. I didn’t have much contact with the bastard throughout the next couple of years, and to tell the truth I sort of dismissed him. And he was easy to dismiss. He was the kid in little league who would miss an easy pop-up and act like he got hurt diving for it, the type to egg people’s windows even though Mischief night was long over, the type to steal shit from the K-Mart, smack girls, lie to himself. The last I’d seen, he was into the punk thing, studs, dirty leather, and the letters “H-A-T-E” scrawled on both sets of knuckles in magic marker.
That, and fucking with people.
Danny had told me that Fitz was back with his name calling, at the bus stop and in a science lab the two shared, sneaking behind and whispering, “pussy,” just loud enough for Danny to hear it in passing, sometimes adding, “Just like your mom likes to lick,” for good measure.
I drove in to school that day with my teeth grinding down. Gave me a head ache. I wanted to act, to solve this, to walk into that junior high school when that rotten bastard least expected, catch him saying something, and bring him to the discipline room by his hair. I was no sixties reject, never a “sensitive man” by any stretch of the imagination, but I despised people who prayed on the good nature of others. They sucked the joy out of life and put everyone on edge. Made you twist yourself up in battle strategies and question yourself.
I turned down Belmont Avenue. The snow had stopped completely, and there were people waiting at the bus stop with their hats and gloves on. One was stamping his feet. Another spit on the cement. Winter without the benefits. A toss of dead leaves skipped by and did an idiot’s jig in the police station parking lot to the left. I wondered why Danny had inherited this particular abuse from this particular boy, and quickly decided that no one would ever really know except them. Ever ask a fourteen year old about his day? You got a shrug. “What did you learn in school today?” “Nothing.” “How do like your teachers this year?” The response: the classic jumble of phrasing “uhehuh,” meaning in earthly terms, “I don’t know.”
Not that Danny was incommunicado all day, every day. He was just fourteen, that’s all. We still watched television together, still made cheese bagels with extra butter on Saturdays, still went bowling every weekend and ate stale soft pretzels with extra mustard, our standard. But that was all stuff on the fringe by then. Kids were fast, changing friendships quicker than the seasons, keeping under your radar, it was a fact of life.
The only thing I could assume from my little corner of this thing was that the fall ball game a month and a half ago might have triggered this. I was surprised to see Fitz on the other team, actually. The boys had moved up to the big field, and I’d assumed he wouldn’t be able to handle it. Besides, I thought I had heard he’d been banned from the league for throwing his bat in the dugout after a costly strike out a year before.
Anyway, he had been pitching for the other side, a real wild Injun, untucking his shirt in a sloppy flap in the back, kicking the mound dirt, spitting straight in the direction of the batter instead of back behind the rubber. Then when things started going south he started in with the other crap we’d seen so often with him, bitching to the ump about the strike zone, snapping off the tosses back from the catcher, throwing his hat if one of his fielders missed a hard grounder. They relieved him in the third and re-entered him in the bottom of the seventh to pitch to Danny, two men on, all tied up, two outs. My boy whacked a fastball right over the center field fence. Almost hit the American flag. His team swarmed him at the plate.
But why on earth would Fitz take that personally? As soon as that thought ran through my head I realized how silly it sounded, but still, the bastard would have to have been from another planet to think that a fall-ball homer was anything significant when compared to the big picture. He’d been on Danny’s team, The Renegades, when they were nine, and he’d been lined up across the diamond on enough of the opposing squads through the years to have known the drill by heart. Danny Taragna comes up to the plate, and the defending coach comes out of the dugout. Says to his players, “For this guy…infielders get your heels on the grass…outfielders, back up…no, turn around and run…no, not a few feet, try thirty or forty.” Danny was the number one hitter in South Marple, possibly in South Eastern Pennsylvania. His hand-eye was literally awesome to behold, and except for an occasional lunging problem when he got too hungry seeing a strike right out of the hand, he was the toughest out any of us had ever seen.
So what else could Fitz possibly expect? His own father was out of the picture, and he was known for never practicing, trying to live off being a hot dog. On our side of the fence, I’d thrown Danny six thousand pitches a summer since that day at three and a half when he hit a wiffle ball back at my face so hard he knocked me down. I mean, Jesus, at four and a half, he was hitting tennis balls a hundred and ninety feet. We used to measure the distance, count it step by step out loud, side by side, heel to toe from the ball back to the plate. Each time the record was broken I’d lift him by the underarms and spin him. Want to see joy on a boy’s face? Try it sometime.
I turned left on Montgomery, flipped on the radio and found a Cars song, then The Talking Heads. Skinny ties and poor vocals, as if the latter was a conscious choice. Pure Bullshit. Turned it off. Maybe it was something else that had sparked bad blood between these two, a passing glance that rubbed Fitz the wrong way, a girl he liked that Danny cut in on, disco-boy versus the punker, whatever. Sometimes boys threw their shoulders back and socked each other around a bit to show who was boss. I only hoped they didn’t have a scuffle and suddenly try to become best bosom buddies like so often happened when dudes duked it out. Last thing I needed was to be fighting with Addy over whether we should have him over for dinner and remember to stick K-E-T-CHUP on his fucking burger.
I got to school and soon forgot about the issue altogether. Someone had defaced the listening center with spray paint, and a neighborhood gang invaded the yard during senior recess. I was turned into an emergency security guard helping out with lock down, watching kids all day, monitoring the halls, supporting the staff in the lunch room.
By the time I got home, my head was absolutely pounding.
And my son’s face had been destroyed.
“Hi Dad,” he said. “I’m fine, so don’t rag, all right?” He was sitting on the couch in the dark. I closed the front door and pushed off the Chipster, who’s tail was wagging so hard her whole back end was swaying.
“Let me see you.”
He stood, winced, looked at me straight. I gasped.
His face, his beautiful angelic face, was that of a monster. There was a sickly purple bruise high on his right cheek, merging into three others that puffed and blotched all the way to the jawline. The right side of his top lip was twice its original size. His left cheek was a hard yellow with two sets of angry red knuckle marks branded across it. His right eye had blood in it, blackened underneath in a wide swab, and the left was swollen shut completely. His forehead was cut in three places, and blood was crusted around both nostrils. My fists were shaking, but miraculously, my voice didn’t follow suit.
“What’s his face look like,” I said quietly. Danny regressed, went from one foot to the other.
“I got him real good, Dad. I think I knocked out his tooth.”
He looked down.
“I hit him in the jaw. Lots of times. He had the better angle, he’s taller.”
“Where’d it happen?”
“Bus stop. Just an hour ago. Kept calling me a pussy, kept begging me to hit him. I threw the first punch when he called Ma a cunt-licker. I missed.”
He looked up at me.
I moved a step closer.
“How many times did you hit him, Danny?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know!” His bloody eye was tearing now. “I tried, Dad, I tried to hit him and hit him, but he kept punching me, geez!” His nose was running, blood trails in it, and he wiped it ungracefully with the back of his hand. I grabbed it, a bit rough, and turned it, looked at the knuckles. No marks. Baby smooth. Slowly, he took his hand back, and rubbed his side gingerly. It was a feminine gesture, and he couldn’t look me straight in the eye.
“Didn’t I do like I was supposed to, Dad?”
My voice came through my teeth.
I thought I was pissed when I tripped on a loose piece of flagstone along their darkened walkway, and more, when I hurt myself a bit hammering on their front door with my fist in the cold, but that was nothing compared to what raced through my head during the short visit inside. It all went by fast, in flashes, and I was honestly lucky I didn’t kill someone.
She opened the door, I barged in, it smelled like cabbage and cigarettes, I said, “Look at his face,” she said, “What’s that to do with me?”
When Fitz came down he was wearing a ripped tee-shirt that said “Pink Floyd sucks,” black jeans, and motorcycle boots. He looked big to me, at least a head taller than Danny, and his face was unmarked for all but the nest of blackheads on both sides of his nose, and a small cut at the corner of his bottom lip.
“Anything special happen at the bus stop today?” I said. He looked at Danny, smirked, and shrugged. I took a step toward him. He turned a shoulder slightly, but the smirk stayed.
“Just came home and did my math homework.”
“You deny this?”
“Nothing to deny.”
“He do this to you, son?”
Danny tried his best to look away. The swelling had gotten worse, and the purple marbling had deepened.
That came from Mom. There were bird’s-eye glasses hanging around her neck and they had dandruff on them. Gray hair pinned back, a wrinkled peacock lighting a cigarette.
“I’m going to report this,” I said.
“I think you should.”
On my way out, Fitz said after me,
“Better get him to the hospital.”
Back in the car, I was thinking that we had to call the Newports, the Gosslingers, the Graystones, the Cohens, all who had kids that were assigned to that bus stop. Or maybe just the police, let them ask the questions, see if Fitz would smirk then. In the morning I’d go see Principal Wheeler, find out who Danny’s counselor was, maybe set up some private therapy sessions so he could get his self confidence back. I thought all those things, but didn’t say them. Instead, I said,
“I thought you said you hit him, Danny. I had the impression there were even blows thrown, or at least close.”
“I did,” he said. “I thought…I don’t know anymore.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence. Addy came home a bit later with two bags of groceries. She saw Danny and dropped them on the floor. She cried hard. We raised our voices. Chipster wouldn’t stop barking. We told Danny to lie on the couch, and had him hold bags of frozen peas and cut corn to his face. Addy tried to get him up to go to the hospital, and I almost complied.
“No,” Danny said.
“Not your choice,” I returned. “And lay back down. You still have four minutes. Fifteen at a pop, it’ll get that swelling down.”
“It’s supposed to be cold.”
“Ain’t supposed to feel pretty.”
“I go to the hospital, I’ll never be able to show my face at school again, Dad.”
We never went. He was fine, just battered. Addy tossed up a last Hail Mary, claiming this was more about me than my son, and I wasn’t hearing it. I made for the stairs, for my “office,” where I was going to pour myself a shot of Jack D., maybe two or three, and brood about the unfairness of the world. Bullies were cowards, fakers, terrified of being exposed, and when you punched one in the nose he was supposed to move on to the next victim. Back in the day I stood up to around half the guys who bullied me in school, and never lost a pushy-pushy. I always felt I should have stood up to the rest of them too, always sort of kicking myself for not having a perfect record.
I was sickened by this family loss. I thought of my Danny, out on the corner of Boxwood Avenue after school in the bitter cold, swinging wild for the fences, for his father, with Bobby Fitz just raining down blows at will. How many times did he strike my son directly in the face? Were the sounds meaty or flat? Did Danny cover up at some point, curl in, and cry Uncle? Were there onlookers in a semi-circle egging this on? Did they follow Danny home in support or rally around their new thumper?
I was half up the stairs.
I kept walking without turning around. He was with his mother and I wasn’t any good for him now. I had to reevaluate things, come up with a way to work this into an emotional configuration that was somehow acceptable. I wanted to rationalize, but couldn’t. I’d play nursemaid and teddy bear in the morning when I had some perspective.
I drank too much, and slept like a stone.
Next morning, I went to the downstairs bathroom, crapped with my head in my hands, made my way into the basement. I thought about doing the “whub-whub,” but I didn’t want to aggravate a sensitive area on his face. I was feeling a little dizzy. I gave his shoulder a gentle shake, and he didn’t respond. Tried it again, and got nothing. I turned him over, and the purples had turned to maroons and pale oranges. There was spittle at the corners of his swollen lips.
He was in a coma.
At 3:19 PM, at Bryn Mawr Hospital, tubes up his nose, and hands curled in, he passed quietly. The doctor said it was a result of massive blunt force trauma to the brain and a clotting issue, but it wasn’t either of those things. He died of a broken heart, of shame, of not living up to his father’s expectations. All day that day I’d held his hand, first hanging off the edge of the gurney, and then dangling off the side of the adjustable bed cranked to a forty five degree angle, held it on that second round until my fingers went sweaty, tingly, numb. He never squeezed back. I’d had my chance to comfort him, but he was gone, long before the rush to the emergency room, the hurried sign in, the tests, the x-rays, the machines beeping intermittently, the hushed voices coming from all around like some maddening shroud.
I’d killed him.
And all for nothing.
Now, I look outside the window and wonder like I do every year what would have happened if we’d been snowed in that day. I was never much for philosophizing, but I still can’t help running the equation through my head, the possibility that somehow time and space worked in some rhythmic continuum, so that changing one little aspect of your life could yield alternate results. What if Danny never went to school that day? What if we shoveled the driveway together, made an igloo, played cards? What if Fitz suddenly put another kid in the crosshairs, or fell in love, or found God?
But that’s all for nothing too.
My legs are constantly in pain, and the arthritis in my back flairs up more often than not. I live above the Gladstone drug store and eat canned food off a hot plate. As you might have guessed, I lost Addy after the trial, not Fitz’s, ours. Lost my teaching gig two months later, mostly because I just couldn’t handle being around kids anymore; their laughter made me cry in the faculty bathroom and their meanness made me weep in the janitor’s storage closet, or the audio visual room, or right there out in the hallway. I went back to the trades, but drank away most of my money. By the time I was fifty I was swinging a sledge. By fifty-five it was a twelve ouncer for the oddball finish work, but by fifty-seven, any boss willing to have me wouldn’t trust me with anything more than a spade shovel for ditches. I kept fucking up the measurements, losing time and money, making my co-workers mutter shit behind my back knowing I could hear it loud and clear, talk about your ironic, poetic justice.
I’m seventy nine years old now, gray, bent over, broken. I keep waiting to die, and I just don’t. I’ve thought of killing myself more times than you could imagine, but I have deferred time and again from being afraid of the pain. I also stand terrified that there is no God, no afterlife, no heaven or hell, just darkness. Terrified that my Danny would be gone forever.
See he visits me. Once a year. On the first hint of snow.
He comes from the walls. Walks the floorboards real as can be. I can see through him, but he’s clear as day, fourteen years old, my gorgeous man-child, and he’s smiling, always smiling.
He also refuses to notice me. I call out to him every year, tell him I love him dearly, get on my knees and beg his forgiveness, but he dismisses me, mouths animated conversations with phantoms, keeps his eyes focused above me. I’ve timed his visits. Always twenty-three minutes exactly, the length of time he laid there with bags of frozen vegetables on his face, crushed by the fact that his father wouldn’t stay there to comfort him. Twenty three minutes of disgrace, capped off with the walk of shame down the stairs with the help of his mother. The last twenty-three minutes of his conscious life.
Addy was the best friend I ever had, but Danny was my soul-mate. I talked to him in his car seat like he was a grown man, told him about my plans. I let him sit in my lap and steer the truck in the graveyard, made him spaghetti with butter, stayed up past his bed time making scary shadow figures with the Rayovac, then going forehead to forehead, whispering our dreams to each other. When he was six he told me he prayed on the North Star every night that he could be like me when he grew up, and when he was seven he refused to sit on the sofa unless my arm was around him. At twelve, he hit a bases clearing double to win a game against Springfield in the interleague championship, and mid-ceremony, signaled me down from the bleachers, handed me his trophy on the third base line, and kissed my cheek in front of his team mates. He was a saint who drew people to him, like those thirty year old women who opened up to him at pool parties, like the ugly ducklings and the cheerleaders who let him love them equally.
I’ve got no books anymore. Don’t need them. There’s enough pain and awareness in the air without them, especially with this he-man tradition of putting our sons through shit they aren’t ready for. We do it because our fathers did it to us, and every father down the block might be doing it better. We train our young boys hard, we rehearse them, drill them, harden them up for the stage, the arena: the school yard, the ball field, the bus stop. Danny was a soldier serving his father’s ghosts.
Now I am slave to his.
I see him. There is a portion of the wall where the brick was never covered nor finished, mortar popcorned and slathered, hardened by years, cracked and scabbed. My Danny bleeds out of this, takes shape, half transparent, but real as the world. I am on my knees before him, and he is looking past me, mouthing some secret or anecdote with a glint of mischief in his eye. He’s imitating someone, making a face, but I don’t get the joke. He’s physicalizing a catch he made in center field, clearly narrating each slow motion step, but I can’t peg the particular game.
I tell him I love him, and he doesn’t hear me.
I tell him I’m sorry, and he looks away.
Something snaps in my head, and everything gets vivid. This hard floor has always been my stage, this room my arena, and Danny my potential watcher. We’ve switched places now, elder and child, and I’ve got to earn his favor. It’s time to enter my own rite of passage, my moment of truth. I’m scared as hell, but it’s all relative, isn’t it? I raise the gun to my head and pray there won’t be all that much pain. I pray there is a God. And right before I pull the trigger home, I pray that my Danny might stand ready after all these long years to take this ugly, ugly duckling with him to glory and finally call things even and equal.
This day, this life, is suddenly running like a mad groundhog.
Pastoral slowness abandoned to this mad dash to cross the killer road.
Ducking under lightly guarded, soft metal barriers,
Invading the concrete expanse,
Exploding to the other side.
This day, this life, is suddenly running
With a groundhog’s mad, wild abandon.
Like a pair of hairy wings with glazed eyeballs.
Like a pair of muscled shoulders churning and shedding.
Running like a seized moment for the ages.
Running with everything.
Running straight ahead, running blind,
Just to get to the other side.
Veined orange blooms – nice
against the drab winter grass.
Snow brings loveliness.
Each night, in the bait
spot, a walnut wedge,
peanut butter, cheese.
Every morning for a week,
droppings in the drawer, home
only to paring knives while
the spring is thwapped, eats gone,
no corpse in sight. Existential
dread refuses to be caught,
naps by day, rises up the sink
pipe after dark to snack
on what I set out in my deep
need to have done with it –
scaly feet, twitching whiskers,
the sharp gnawing teeth.
In “The Letter,” Alex Chilton
gravels out “Air-O-Plane.”
He wants a ticket.
So do you—to fly
where you’ll be handsome,
bright, and athletic. You
pop pimples. The song’s
under two minutes long.
The last verse got cut
from the single—
the plane crashes. You wish
you had been on it. Instead,
Well, we have to begin somewhere,
right? Of course not!
And avoid the middle—
where demons diaper the dead.
Think of yourself
as a swing.
You’re in mid-air,
nobody pushing. Somebody
should be sitting on you.
You were made for that.
But you make a small
as you near clouds.
We knew the family was in trouble, when our sister, Helen, starting putting bologna on the walls. Helen told us that Winston Churchill was living in her left ear. We believed she was joking. Winston Churchill living in her ear was by far better than bologna on the walls. An ear infection no doubt had spread to her brain. That’s what we thought. We were convinced the medicine produced her hallucinations, because prior to that, she was at the very least, lucid. She told us that Churchill told her enormous lies. Eventually, Helen began believing Churchill’s lies.
But it was the lunch meat she placed on decaying plaster walls that cinched the severity of her mental state for us. Winston Churchill could have been viewed as an imaginary friend, albeit, but she was fifteen at the time. What right did we have to say at what age one is supposed to give up a friendship fantasy? But putting food on the walls when we ten were so poor–we knew then, she was sick-in-the-head. Her mind was ka- put. The noodle was cooked. And our mother, who wasn’t quite right in the head either, would say, “Well, you know, Helen’s mental.” To this, our only response was, “And who wouldn’t be, living here with you and Tattie?
This all happened a very long time ago when our country didn’t use terms such as economic down turn or recession. We called a spade a spade. It wasn’t a melancholy economy. It was a depression. We knew Helen’s ultimate fate–the looney bin.
After the lunch meat incident, Helen began punching and hitting everyone. She was removed from school. Adolescent psychiatric units didn’t exist back then. Mental hospitals did, and sanitariums, but not the specialized mental heath facilities that are so common in this century.
After the wall-meat incident, and the hitting and violence, and Winston Churchill taking up residence in her left ear, she starting seeing a ghost in her room at night. The she-ghost told her things such as …your parents helped at the corpse factories in Mauthausen and Dachau. They are the worst kind of Jews, because they were baptized. They will push you into the oven too, you undesirable. While the ghost was visit- ing her nightly, Churchill had taken to belching and singing Russian sea shanties. We thought she was thinking of Tattie.
The way to subdue the mentally infirm didn’t differ all that much from today. More like incapacitation. Zombies in white pajamas roaming the halls, mumbling the nonsense of geniuses. We became increasingly fraught, for her kooky behavior grated away at what little sanity we could muster. We wanted out of this house, out of this neighborhood, out of this asylum of life.
We started reading about electrical shock therapy. We felt badly that our Helen might have to undergo this procedure. Frontal lobotomy was the rage during the late 1940s. So was sterilization.
One night, Helen was really violent. So we decided that we would call the police. We reached an operator and was connected to the Girard Avenue Police station. A gruff male voice was on the line with us; his labored breathing interspersed between his words. We could picture this detective wearing a pork pie hat, suspenders, a pin-striped vest, with both of his feet placed on top of a heavy mahogany desk. A lone Lucky Strike hanging, listing really, barely clinging to the right corner of his lip. Little wheezes mixed his words, when he said, “ So what’s the problem, gang?”
We paused for a few seconds and replied, “ Our sister is not well. She’s hitting everyone and busting up the house. She has a knife.”
“I’ll send a car right over, gang. Why don’t all of you get out of the house.”
We all stood around the paddy wagon while the four detectives struggled with Helen. She was stronger than all four put together. By the time they finished with her, two had black eyes, one had a bloody nose, and she had bitten a large chunk of one’s left ear lobe. She said that Winston Churchill told her to do it, because the detective was a no- good-fucking-jidoofka. We all cried, the eight of us, and our two brothers, stood motion- less staring at their boots.
With Helen locked away in Byberry and our youngest brother dead at 15, Tattie left. Our uneducated mother from Ukraine, who barely spoke English, looked to rich Episcopalians for help. We really started living good. We forgot about Helen and our brother and our father. On holidays, we were taken by childless families to mansions on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia. We loved the lawns and driveways. It was nice to be away from the Schlitz Brewery on Pollard Street with the drunken ruffians and vaga- bonds. Rich people would give us new clothes and shoes, and we always had delicious food. But we always returned to Pollard Street after the festivities.
One night, a knock at the door awakened us. We answered it. Three handsome sail- ors were standing on our stoop, swaying to the rhythm of the evening breeze and cheap whiskey.
Almost in unison we asked them, “Can we help you?” The sailors stared at all five of us girls and said, “Is this the home of the Luick girls?” We said, “Yes. Why do you ask?”
While whispering back and forth to each other, they all wore the same confused look on their faces. Almost dumbstruck, the older of the three said,
“Are you sure?–‘cause you don’t look like whores.” We all could have died at that very moment. We said, “Well, you’re damn right we’re not whores!” “We are so, so sorry, ladies. We never meant to insult you.”
“Who sent you here,?” We asked. “Tommy did–the Russian Red Head. He said that if we wanted to have a good time, to call on the Luick sisters.” The five of us were dumbfounded. How low could Tattie get? Our own father! After gaining our composure we said, “Well, we’re not whores. We’re sisters.” The sailors were embarrassed for us. The youngest one said, “Do you want us to beat Tommy up for you? He’s got some nerve that guy.” Before closing the door completely, we told the young sailor that it wasn’t necessary to beat up Tommy–he was our father. The days went on like this for years. Caroline and I were the only two who married later. All of the rest of the girls, and our surviving brother, were married before they were eighteen. Caroline and I were the big dopes.
We were the only ones to visit Helen weekly. Mommy always came with us on these trips that took most of the day. We’d catch a bus, then a trolley, then two more buses, before we arrived in Northeast Philadelphia, where Byberry was located.
Most of the time, Helen sat motionless in the solarium, unaware of the sunlight streaming in shattered, angled rays, or the man pissing in the hallway, swaying his penis around like a fire hose. One woman thought she was Eleanor Roosevelt, and they had a Madame Curie and Mary Queen of Scots. History was so nice.
Helen said she was alone now. Winston Churchill drank himself to death in her left ear, and the she-ghost stopped appearing in her room shortly after the Nuremberg Trial ended. She finally looked happy, but the long, winding scar on her forehead remained red and swollen for almost two years. It did not complement her placid stare, dark circles under her eyes and thinning hair. We always said she was the most beautiful of the Luick girls.
After every visit, we wondered about Helen’s happiness. Her stories took us away–if even for only a moment.
Why is it so surprising,
to learn that a girl
in front of a window
looking out on the ball field?
And even today,
why is it surprising
to find that the boy pulled
her naked body hard
And even now,
why is it a surprise
that he blew the candle’s
flame with such force
the curtain instantly
shooting in the air,
singeing the girl’s long strands?
And how is it possible,
that the girl said she’d started the fire
Catharine watched the murky brown river from the window of her new home, a three-storey brick on New Castle’s historic register. She had dreamed of owning one of these storybook houses along the Delaware River. On the weekends, she’d come to read on a public bench, and when student papers accumulated or the weather was cold or wet, like this gray late September day, she’d go into one of the cafés and drink pots of hot tea.
She eyed her well-worn copy of Wuthering Heights lying at the top of a box. Later, I’ll shelve the books and alphabetize them, she thought, bringing the cup of steaming brown tea to her lips. “Tea,” she said to the windowpane, “or as the Brit Thomas de Quincey called it, ‘bewitched water.’” She’d never been to England, the home of many of her beloved authors. “That will have to change, too.” She set her cup onto its saucer on the kitchen counter as a slim blond woman in jeans and a fuchsia pullover walked into the muddy backyard. Her backyard. But it wasn’t much of a yard, really. The small patch of muddy ground soon turned to tufts of drowned grass and tall weeds, and down the slight slope, the river. What would someone want in the marsh?
“Plenty of places to walk in the public areas,” Catherine murmured in disapproval. She thought of tapping on the window and wagging her finger as she shook her head, a gesture she used when watching the children on the playground from the classroom window. The woman stooped and stared at some point far out upon the dark river. The autumn day overcast, no sun shone on the ripples that knit its surface. Catharine shivered.
She recognized a fellow romantic soul. She could share her good fortune. Let her come into the yard. So what? What is it about water that draws us?
She didn’t blame the woman for her trespass. Before she had bought this house and was still a visitor, Catharine had peeked at the lives behind the antique windowpanes—the bookshelves, the draperies, the centuries’ old tables, the paired wingback chairs pulled close to the fire. And then one day, as she walked down the street with its cobblestone gutters and crossed to the uneven brick sidewalk, there was her favorite flat-faced Federal-style brick house, with a bright yellow Weichert Realty sign wired to the wrought iron railing. She took a leaflet from the box describing the house—“You don’t see houses overlooking the Delaware River on the market too often! Built in 1830, the house boasts deep windows, original wood floors, built-ins, two fireplaces and a recently remodeled kitchen. The master bedroom has access to a rooftop deck for spectacular river views!—$739,900.” She had eyed the perfect symmetry of the house with its double-hung sash windows and dentilwork and made up her mind to buy it.
Surely she’ll stop before she gets to the marsh.
$739,900. Her father would say it was obscene to pay that much for a home when she could get a perfectly good row house like the one she grew up in for $200,000. That was exactly what he said. Her mother joined the protest. I don’t like you being so close to the river. Is it safe for a single girl? Catharine had turned 40 this past February. She had the money, or most of it, even on an English teacher’s salary. She’d saved nearly all of the inheritance from her grandmother and set aside 18 years’ worth of hoping to move from her parents’ home to her husband’s. Except he had yet to turn up, and she had grown tired of waiting. Now she stood on the doorstep, literally and figuratively. So what if my Heathcliff hasn’t come along? It’s okay to want something for myself. It is okay.
The woman had descended the sloping back yard into the water. It lapped about her calves, the brown grass brushing against her blue jeans as she took off her sweater and lay it upon the water beside her. She removed her shoes and jeans and stood staring at the water. The woman’s skin was pale against her black cotton underclothes. She lowered her underwear and stepped out and unhooked her bra. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Catharine said to the wavy glass, but then she considered that perhaps the woman had been bathing here since summer and had not yet realized that the house that observed her skinnydipping was now occupied.
Catherine felt an obscure embarrassment, as though she were the intruder and not this woman. She noticed that the woman’s breasts sagged, not low like an old woman’s, but lower than the hard breasts of her young students. Catherine had the same tummy bulge. The woman’s bleached blond hair and slim figure had made her seem like a woman in her 20s. In her 40s, most likely, Catharine now realized, and her heart softened.
How odd. It’s too cold for swimming, and the current is swift. Catharine tapped on the glass. The woman did not turn around. And to let her clothes float away. Catharine was reminded of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, a novel that always made her uncomfortable, angry even. Edna should return to her husband and children. What a silly thing to walk into the water to your death. So what if Edna never became an artist? So what if she couldn’t have Robert? She didn’t like to think of Edna at the bottom of the river, her long brown hair swaying like marsh grass. She knew the book lay at the bottom of one of the boxes.
She tapped on the glass. The woman didn’t turn. She knocked as hard as she dared without breaking the window. Still, the woman did not turn. “I should call to her. I’ve had troubles of my own.” Let’s share a pot of tea and trouble, Catharine’s mother would say. How bad can troubles get to make a woman stand naked in the marshy area of the Delaware River?
The woman waded into the river. Catharine tried to open the kitchen window, but it was painted shut. “Stop!” she yelled. The woman waded deeper. “I don’t want to see this. Jesus! Don’t do this!” Catharine rushed to the window over the sink, knocking her teacup and saucer to the ceramic floor, porcelain splinters scattering. The window opened easily, but the woman had disappeared. Through her tears, Catharine saw nothing but tufts of grass steeping in the brown water.