Fiction, Vol. 5.1, March 2011
The Long Island Expressway quite suddenly jammed as Frank and his father closed in on the Whitestone Bridge entrance and the airports. Frank’s father was driving Frank home to Brooklyn, something he often did the mornings after Frank’s rare visits to his parents. Usually they breezed right into the city if they left at exactly 9 A.M, so they both threw up their hands at the unexpected jam.
They sat in crawling or stopped traffic, Frank’s father staying in the center lane. Trucks were in front, behind, and to the right of them.
They hadn’t said much until this point. A few words about Frank’s grandmother, his father’s job, and Frank’s own job, but the conversation died quickly each time.
They came to a long, complete standstill, and Frank stared at Shea Stadium to the right. He was twenty-four now, and he remembered the one and only time his father had taken him a baseball game there. He was twelve then and a baseball nut. He and his sisters waited excitedly at the front screen door as their father pulled into the driveway from work. They had box seats to the Dodgers-Mets game. Frank Robinson hit two home runs and the Mets lost.
“Don’t be like me,” his father said suddenly, softly, and Frank looked over at him. His father looked at the truck ahead of them.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean quiet…I’m quiet, that’s the way I am. I don’t really talk, not at all. But I don’t want you to be like that, too.”
“I’m not.” Frank laughed a little. “I talk. I have to talk at work.”
“You don’t talk. You’re quieter than me. I don’t want that for you. It’s not good to keep things inside.”
They were silent again. His father was very close to the truck ahead of them.
When Frank was seventeen his father was in an accident. He had fallen asleep behind the wheel at 5 a.m. as he drove to Belmont Park, where he trained horses. He woke just before his car smashed into the back of a truck, and dove into the passenger’s leg area as the truck took the top of the car completely off. He hadn’t worn a seat belt, and never wore a seat belt after that because he said that’s what had saved him.
Frank stared at the steel fender of the truck ahead. In English class at Stony Brook three or four years before, he’d sat in the back of the class, doodling instead of taking notes, until the professor mentioned what Freud had once said—that the most important day in a man’s life was the day his father died. Frank remembered looking up from his notebook, wondering when that would happen and not knowing at all what he might feel.
“See? You’re quiet now,” said his father as he edged the car even closer to the stationary truck. “You’re still quiet. Quieter than me. That’s no good.”
“I know,” Frank sighed. “I know.”
His father maneuvered into the right lane ahead of a truck and behind a small car. “So maybe tell me a story then,” he said suddenly, glancing over at Frank.
Frank felt his heart jump.
“Yes.” His father looked at him. “Tell me something that happened when you were a kid, something your mother and me don’t know.”
“Geez, I don’t know,” Frank laughed, looking out the window. Shea was almost behind them now.
“Anything. Something stupid. Anything. Talk.”
He had gone to a baseball game one other time, also when he was twelve, that time with his friend Jim and Jim’s mother Carmella, Jim’s younger sister Cookie, and Cookie’s friend Claire. They watched the Giants beat the Mets on two Willie McCovey home runs.
He and Jim had played stickball at the junior high school almost every day that summer, and for a few of those days Claire went with them, just hanging around and watching them play or sitting off to the side. She had short brown hair and talked a lot. Frank and Jim knew she probably liked one of them or both, but neither really cared.
Frank laughed a little through his nose and looked ahead, sighing. “All right. I have something.” His father looked over at him and put the car into park because traffic wasn’t moving at all.
Claire was with them one day while they played. She stood near Jim while Jim pitched from a chalked line they’d made in the parking lot. Frank didn’t care if she was there. He was busy pretending he was Rose and Griffey and Morgan and Bench and Perez, in that order. They had drawn a chalked strike zone on the junior high wall, and Frank watched two pitched balls just miss the large square behind him before fouling a ball straight back onto the junior high roof. On the very next pitch, he fouled another one onto the roof. Then later, while Claire sat off to the side on the curb, Frank pitched to Jim, who fouled their last two balls back and gone. Empty-handed, they wandered to the side of the school where the classroom windows were.
They couldn’t get up by themselves, so they stood a while looking at each other before spotting Ricky Clark walking across the field. They called for him to come over to help boost them up. He was taller than Frank or Jim, and twice as tall as Claire.
Claire wanted to go up first, and Frank and Jim watched her struggle to get her foot onto the top of the window and grab onto the steel edge jutting from the roof. She scrambled up and called down to them. “Hurry up. It’s easy.” Ricky boosted Jim up second and then Frank vaulted himself without Ricky’s help as Claire watched.
They found their four tennis balls, and then a few more. After that a few pink Spaulding balls and a few regular baseballs. They tossed each onto the grass below, Frank noticing that Ricky had gone.
Claire’s face was bright. “This is fun. Let’s keep looking!”
“Let’s get down from here,” said Jim.
“No, it’s fine. It’s fine,” said Claire. “This is like a bonanza or something.”
“A bonanza?” Jim said, and he and Frank looked at each other and grinned.
Then they saw the police car, saw it before they heard the brief blip of the siren as it turned into the school lot. They ran to the edge.
“Uh, how do we get down?” Frank asked.
Claire hesitated, looking back at the approaching police car. “We’ll jump.” They looked at her silently. “It’s fine. We’ll jump. We gotta hurry. Come on!” They looked at her. “Come on, hurry. I’ll go first. Let’s go.”
“No, don’t—” Jim began.
She jumped. And landed hard. And flopped instead of rolled. On her back, she called up to them weakly, “Don’t…jump.” Then she turned herself over and crawled into the bushes.
Two policemen had gotten out of the car by that time and walked toward them. They helped Frank and Jim down and found Claire curled into a ball in the bushes.
His father smiled.
“Was she all right?”
“She was all right,” Frank scoffed. “The police were pretty nice, especially since she was hurt, but she was all right.”
Traffic had begun to crawl again. To the right was the 1964 World’s Fair grounds, walking distance from where his father grew up, and where Frank lived until he was six months old.
His father sighed heavily. “That’s it? That’s your big story?”
“At least you talked a little bit.”
His father didn’t say anything.
Frank looked at the old World’s Fair Unisphere and he remembered the photo of his father in front of it with him and his older sister. His sister was six and he was four, and Frank’s father held his hand.
“I liked her later though,” he said.
“Who? The kid that jumped?”
“Yeah, in high school. I was a junior and she was a sophomore.”
He’d liked her steadily and silently the entire year, not knowing why. She stayed with the older jocks. He liked the way she moved, maybe her smile. He always knew where she was in the commons between each class. And he never spoke to her or said hello, not once. Then the social studies department took students to the city to work in a soup kitchen. He found himself next to her. He was quiet, moving slowly, looking everywhere but at her.
When she reached across him for a ladle, he glanced over at her. “Hey, uh, do you still jump off buildings?”
She looked at him, surprised. “What?”
He smiled. Then she seemed to remember and knit her brows. “Asshole,” she spat out, and moved away from him to work down at the other end. He talked to Elyse McCarthy on the other side of him for the rest of the day.
His father smiled again. He never laughed, really. His laughter was more like a seizure, a long, red-faced, quaking spasm.
“Well, you were better off. She couldn’t take a joke.”
“I was just trying to make conversation,” Frank shrugged. “I couldn’t say anything to her all year and then I ask her if she still jumps off buildings.” He looked at the sky, now very bright in the late morning. “No wonder I’m not married yet.”
“You got time,” his father said, waving away the comment. “Don’t worry about that. Worry about talking first. No one wants to marry a mute.”
Frank started to say something, stopped himself. His father glanced over as he pulled back into the center lane. The cars had begun to move slightly faster.
“There was another Claire,” Frank said quickly.
“Yeah, in college. I talked to her, that’s for sure. We talked a lot.”
His father didn’t say anything, and Frank swallowed his words and stared at the pavement to the side of the car.
“I don’t believe you talked,” his father said, quietly challenging him. “Maybe she did all the talking.”
“No. We rode the train together to Stony Brook when we were sophomores. I think I talked more than she did.”
Frank looked straight ahead as the traffic’s pace picked up, and he told his father about Claire.
She was his age, but from the Catholic high school. She walked to the train station from where she lived on 6 th Street. Her friend John walked with her, and one day John talked to him and they all sat together for the train’s four stops to the college. Claire was skinny with curly brown hair and blue eyes. She wore a poncho sometimes. John liked to joke, and then Frank joined in after a few days. He liked to hear Claire giggle, a trill that he wished would go on and on. They all had lunch together sometimes, too. On the way home, he and Claire started to ride together alone. They talked about classes.
Once Frank complained that he was tired. “I paid too much attention in classes today,” he groaned. “I’ll never do that again.”
Close to Thanksgiving they sat slumped in their seats, their arms leaned together, giggling over a line in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: “The Me-As-Object-For-Myself-is a-Me-Which-is-Not-Me.” Claire was an art major and started showing him her drawings. Soon they rode quietly with each other, often slumped in their seats, leaning into each other and saying nothing. Then after Thanksgiving he showed her a rock he’d found. It had three smooth edges. She quietly drew on it during the ride home. At their station she gave it back to him. As he walked home, he looked at the sad Claire face that she’d drawn on one of the rock’s smooth sides.
The next afternoon it rained, and sitting beside her, his heart raced as they neared the station.
“There’s a concert on campus Friday…” he began, but she interrupted him to joke about a girl who’d looked over her shoulder that day as she drew and asked her, “Do you drau?” Claire giggled but he only smiled. “Do you drau?” Claire imitated again, and she laughed and then looked down at her hands.
The train was pulling into the station. He moved closer and asked her again. She looked down at her hands.
“You don’t want to?” he asked.
She looked at her hands. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t?” She didn’t say anything. “All right.“ He stood up and grabbed his bag. They got off the train together silently and he watched her get picked up in a small yellow car.
His younger sister got on the phone with a friend who knew her and then came to him and closed his bedroom door. “She has a boyfriend,” she said.
“She tried to break up with him a couple of weeks ago, and he tried to run her over with a car.”
The next morning she sat with John away from him, at the other end of the train. He caught up to them on the way across the field, and after John went his own way, Frank told her he knew about the boyfriend. “I can help,” he said.
“Oh, no, no, no,” she said. “I don’t know why Sandra said that. I really don’t. Don’t worry about me.”
“I am worried about you.”
“No, no, really, it’s fine. I don’t know why she said that.” And she hurried off.
She didn’t ride the train again. Christmas came, and then the break, and when the second semester started, she still didn’t ride the train. He ran into her in April or May in the language department, and he tried to talk to her, but she said she was late for class and hurried away.
The jam had unjammed and the traffic had been flowing easily and by now, his father was just exiting the BQE into Brooklyn and his neighborhood. They were quiet for a while.
“How about we get something at Mazzola’s?”
“Sounds good to me,” Frank sighed.
“I thought the first Claire story was funnier,” his father said.
“The second one’s not funny at all. I forgot all about it until now. It doesn’t matter.”
“You ever see her again?”
“Once a couple of years ago, on Larkfield Road. I talked to her a little bit. I was kind of mad though. I didn’t say much to her. Just how you doing, that’s it.”
His father pulled in front of Mazzola’s bakery. He got out and hurried inside. Frank looked down Union Street at the trees lining the road and at the stoops of the brownstones. He leaned his head into his hand.
His father returned with fresh bread and a box of something and two coffees. He handed Frank a coffee and started opening up the box.
“I got something here. And once we finish this, you’re going to start talking more, meet a nice girl, smile more, and all of that. You’re not going to be quiet like me. I was lucky I found your mother. But you gotta start opening your mouth again.”
“All right, all right, what is it.”
His father opened the box. There were a few donuts and two éclairs in it.
“Which Claire do you want to finish off?” his father said. “The one who jumps off buildings, or the one who likes to go with guys who try to run her over?”
“Oh, come on. I’ll just have the jelly—”
“No. No. Pick one.” He held the box out to Frank.
Frank slowly reached for one of the éclairs. “All right,” he laughed, “the one who likes to get run over.” He opened his coffee and took a sip, and then was about to take a bite, but his father said, “Wait, I’m not ready. Wait.” He placed his coffee cup on the dashboard. Then he held his éclair close to his mouth.
“Ready? One…two…three!” and they both bit, his father taking a huge bite and Frank a smaller one, to where the cream started. They chewed hungrily.
His mouth full, Frank’s father said, “Don‘t…jump,” and he began to laugh, shaking silently, his face reddening. Frank laughed too, shaking too without laughing aloud. At last Frank took a breath long enough to say, “Do you still jump off buildings?” and they went on laughing violently and silently until the tears came.
They stopped long enough to take a second bite and then a last bite to finish off the éclairs. Frank looked at his father who nodded back to him with finality, licking at two fingers. “And that‘s that,” he said… “Asshole.” And they broke up laughing again.
They sipped at their coffees, sometimes breaking into wide smiles or smaller fits of teary laughter. Frank looked down his block, at the tree-lined street, at the line of brownstone stoops, and as they laughed once more his tears changed, as if coming from another chamber within him, and he realized how much he loved his father.