The school bell’s ringing and Susan and me are singing, “Glory, glory hallelujah, the truth comes marching home.” Susan, my sometime duet partner and fellow straight A student are in fine spirits this morning. I share with her my good news and she shares hers with me, a sabbatical to Ireland come Christmas break.
“Oh yeah, laddy,” Susan says, “to visit thee grandparents.” She sets her backpack down and opens the side pocket and pulls out a map. It is of Ireland. She gestures for me to sit down and since I don’t have a backpack to sit on, I fashion a makeshift chair with my meager possessions, three used and broken books and one torn flannel shirt (sometimes used over tee shirt as a jacket). Uncomfortable as it is, I will endure the pain of swollen butt and cramped legs to sit along with Susan as she shares with me her history. I am rather intrigued by her. She is of a different sort, fine accent and polished. She is gentrified and dignified, from the other side of the tracks, heck, the other side of the ocean.
“How long have you been here, Susan?”
“Been in America one and one-half years.”
The third and final bell has rung. We fold up camp and she in brogue and vogue and me with cheap Chicago slang and tattered jeans enter the classroom together. Miss Marquardt, our home teacher, seems off guard this morning as she almost falls off her chair. Perhaps Susan and me are an item. Perhaps.
Throughout the day, I dream. About good things. Between bouts of algebraic expression and geographical forays into fjords and bayous and canyons too, I rest my head upon the desk and close my eyes. I’m center-stage. In audience, my family—cheering and applauding and rising to ovation with a thousand others. Next to Mom and Dad sits Leah. She had won my hand of marriage. She’s more beautiful than any dream would allow. Never before had I’d been this happy. Leah and I are expecting. Mom and Dad are excited, so very much so. To be called Grandma and Grandpa, ah, what smiles brighten their gentle faces.
Again, the bell. It’s time to go home. I walk part of the way with Frankie. We stop at the candy store. He’s gained back a few pounds, his diet of low-fat morsels traded in for big bags of chips and sugar-topped wafers. I urged the yogurt instead but, just like always, he tells me how he hates it. “How about an apple then?”
Soon, we are at the corner. A few vehicles pass and then a man walking a dog. Frankie doesn’t want to wait; he tries to cross against the traffic, first, nearly getting a face-lift by the bumper of a moving van and secondly, almost getting his leg chewed off by a nervous Doberman. I have to pull him back to safety both times. What strength I must suddenly possess in such dire a need.
“Frankie, why do you have to be so stubborn sometimes?” I say.
He looks at me like I’m crazy and empties the crumbling bag of chips into his mouth, ensuring every last crumb. You go, boy! I think sarcastically.
Later, after night had fallen, and the six o’clock news had ended with a note on President Nixon and something about Watergate, things I don’t yet pay much attention to.
Mom had settled into the old but varnished rocking chair, rocking away to a silent tune, one that she’d heard perhaps a thousand times and since memorized. Lenny, who once again, had returned red-eyed, sits alongside her on the couch, humming to his own brand of subconscious melody. Trish and Wendy, braided hair both, had gone to the park, once again with “The Minstrel” and a few newer friends, people I have not yet had the privilege of meeting. They had stood outside in the hall while The Minstrel entertained Mom with his doggy balloon as Trish and Wendy finished getting ready.
I’m reading my history book, focusing on the Civil War, will be a quiz tomorrow. Another thing that separates me from Lenny, I love to read, he doesn’t. He doesn’t do so well in school either. It doesn’t matter to him though.
He doesn’t mind bringing home D’s and F’s on his report card. And not much Mom or Dad could do. God knows, they had tried but since given up. They’re resigned to allowing Lenny serve out his time, and after he turns sixteen he can quit school and get a job. He already has shown signs that he loves money more than anything and the more he has, it seems, the loftier his self-esteem.
He enjoys outclassing everybody, makes him feel important. I bet when he gets his car, it’s going to be really fancy. I can see him now, bloated head and all, driving a car pricier than most of the family homes over on the other side of the city, where the fathers there have jobs as lawyers and doctors and a few of them, I had heard, are big city government men. They’re the ones you see sitting at the diner all day at the table across from the counter where the blue men sit.
I bet they’re there, planning all kinds of things for the city: new parks, cleaner alleys and better garbage removal. I guess it takes time for their plans to go into effect though. Still waiting for the garbage men to come down our alley and clear it so that I could build my runway.
Gee, we can’t even have our alley softball game anymore. Last time, a rat chased me all the way from first to third base. And I was pitching at the time. Whew, was that scary! Third inning, we had to call the game. Boy, was Eddie mad. He had got dressed in his uniform and everything. Even had brought his grandfather’s bat, signed by Joe DiMaggio. I told him, “Eddie, I’m sorry but I can’t play with rats running the bases.”
And so, without much fanfare, the summer had ended as is: three complete games, one called because of rain, and four incomplete due to poor playing conditions. Next spring, and then onto summer, we may change venues, although alley softball games are great because it requires more skill. Hitting line drives are the only way of getting on base, everything else a foul or automatic out.
If you pull the ball either to the left or to the right, there’s a very good chance that you’d break one of the neighbor’s windows or, God forbid, bop Mrs.Dobinski on the head while she’s hanging clothes on the line in her yard like that one time. “No Mike, I know what you’re thinking, but wrong kind of line drive.”
Jim Croce – “Time In A Bottle”
It’s going on eight-thirty now, Trish and Wendy are back home, right on time. Mom gets off her rocker and hugs them as if she hadn’t seen them for weeks. Trish squints at me and I know what she’s thinking: Mom’s a bit off her rocker. But, soon it is revealed why. It’s the booze.
Mom staggers into her bedroom and comes back out with a bottle. It’s gin. She’s been hording it, trying to keep it a secret but now, damn it, the truth is out. Mom had returned to her old ways and I am worried, as is Trish.
She nervously undoes her braids while fumbling for answers. But there won’t be any, not on this night. Mom is not in the mood to testify. In the kitchen, she says nothing, while we watch stunned as she pours a half bottle of tonic into her half bottle of gin, shakes it, then grabs a huge glass and fills it with ice cubes. Trish pulls apart the final braid and then says, “Why, Mother?” Mom looks at her disgustingly and pushes fast past us. She stumbles down the hall and into her bedroom and locks the door.
Trish wants desperately to call Dad but I reason with her not to call him.
”Trish, it will only make matters worse. Dad is busy pouring gin and tonics himself to the drunks down at Coopers and I don’t think he’d be too happy to hear about the gin pouring here at home.
Trish, I just pray that Dad doesn’t start drinking again too. I’m pretty sure he won’t though.” I pull up a kitchen chair and tiredly fall onto it. I point to the chair across from me and Trish sits also. She calls out into the living room and tells Wendy to pull out her sleeping bag and to get ready for bed.
“Okay Trish, I will. But first I got to find Cindy’s pajamas.”
“They’re in the bottom drawer,” Trish says.
“The one with the television on it.”
It’s been a while since Trish had taken over Mom’s position as “Mother” and I’m proud of her as she had been before when our “real mother,” was absent a lot due to her “bouts of depression” and her hiding out in the bedroom for days and days and days until she’d come out and join Dad in one of the million taverns dotted everywhere on the city map.
And then, she’d be right back in the bedroom with a hangover that would, sometimes, last for weeks. And then Dad would come home without the money and then Mom would swing back into that depression thing again and soon, the lights would go out, and the milk would spoil and finally, the last candle would burn out and there we’d sit, in the pitch darkness of Mom’s depression and Dad’s irresponsibility.
Not much to do, but finish my homework. Trish went out into the living room to tuck Wendy in. Lenny had already left, oh, about an hour ago, I assume to smoke some more pot. Like he hasn’t had enough already. That drawing he was working on, “James Cagney” looks more like “Bozo, the Clown” trying to look tough. I don’t think this one’s going to impress Uncle Johnny too much when Lenny gives it to him for his birthday next month. Man, how Uncle Johnny loves those old gangster movies. Lately, I’ve been thinking. Maybe he is one, himself, and nobody knows about it, well, nobody in the family I mean.
I’m walking and stop in front of Morley’s Music. There it is, the blue sparkling guitar that will soon be mine. It’s beautiful and I can’t wait to hook it up and inaugurate my adoring fans with The Star Spangled Banner.
I continue on, feeling patriotic. Rockets red glare, bursting in air. Reverb. Fuzz Box. And, the home (home, home, home, home) of the brave . . .
I ring the bell. Mister Morelli, Frankie’s father, answers the door. He’s a much thinner version of Frankie—black hair, brown eyes, bushy eyebrows and bullnecked. And protruding lips, but unlike Frankie, speaks to me in a heavy accent. He is like Grandma Rosa, from the old country.
A nice man, Mr. Morelli is. “You come-ah in the house-ah. You wait-ah for Frankie. I give you-ah . . . eh, drink of a joooza.”
Thanks, Mr. Morelli.” I enter the house, a bungalow, I guess you’d call it, and follow Mr. Morelli into the kitchen/dining room. A table, much bigger than ours, is in the middle of the room, with, I count, eight chairs around it. While Mr. Morelli pours me a glass of orange juice, I’m doing the math. Eight chairs and um, let me see — there’s Mr. And Mrs. Morelli. Of course, Frankie. There are Frankie’s two sisters, Fran and Joanne, that makes five, and oh yeah, Frankie’s little brother, Johnnie, making six. Eight minus six equals two. Families from the old country are close-knit, and if there’s six in the family, there’d be only six chairs, this I know. Who are the other two? And, how come Frankie never mentioned them?
I pass the empty glass to Mr. Morelli, thank him again, and wait for Frankie. Mr. Morelli went to finish shaving. Ten minutes pass. By this time, I’m almost hypnotized by following the pendulum of the grandfather clock in the corner. Come on, Frankie, I say to myself. Another five minutes pass and I am wearying, slipping away into a subconscious level, the second level, where dragons and dwarves start to take shape while the birds outside, in real time, provide a harmonious soundtrack.