"Frankie Would be Almost Nine" Published in Bull No. 5 (November 2015)
When I was thirty-three my mother wrote asking me to be the executor of her will. She always was a great letter writer, and refused to use the telephone for long distance calls, even after I urged her to call collect. At least once each month I would find a small envelope with her perfect handwriting in my mailbox. Sometimes I’d get three in a week. She’d long ago stopped asking me to visit, focusing instead on reporting to me the mundane daily events of her life and those in the small Rhode Island town where I grew up and she still lived. At times, and especially toward the end, she’d write to me about my father and our relationships with him, which she knew was the main reason I lived thousands of miles away.
In the months before her death, she’d written that the doctors had told her she was in full remission, and that a recurrence was unlikely. So when I received her letter hinting that things were worse than she’d been letting on, I wasn’t exactly prepared to drop everything and go see her. She hadn’t come right out and said, “I’m dying,” but I did wonder. I debated with my wife for a day and a night about what to do. My mother and I had been estranged for years, since before my father’s passing, and my home there seemed a remote and forgettable memory. It was where I was from, but not where I was going.
If my friends in Phoenix asked me where I grew up, I’d say “back east” as if I were answering their question with a question of my own. Should I have gone home or not? It wasn’t that I hated the place, or that I didn’t love my mother as much as any other son. I felt, though, that life seemed to pull me in a direction away from that place, and I did nothing to resist it.
Was she dying? Yes. Would she die soon? I couldn’t say, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about it. In her last letter, she’d written about our family, especially my father: “Peter, sometimes fathers and sons don’t ever become friends like they should. Maybe it’s because they were too much alike and never realized it. Or maybe it was because one of them, the father or the son, didn’t have enough of himself to go around.”
She went on to talk about Frankie, the brother I never knew. “I pray every day for both of them, Frankie and your father, and although I miss them terribly, I have no great desire to leave this life.” With age she grew less able to distinguish last year from twenty years ago. I’m sure, too, the illness clouded her memories. She wrote about the past as if it were the day before. “When you came home from that fight with your face cut up, your mouth bleeding, your clothes all dirty, I wanted to go and find the boy that did it to you. Your father and I worried about you the way you’d left the house. Yes, your father worried too.” I imagined, as I read it, how she must have looked while writing the letter, hunched over in her bed, frail hands grasping the pen, an effort in every stroke.
As a teenager, and even into my twenties, having seen how my brother’s death had affected her, I believed my mother was weak. When my father passed, I was much too engulfed in my own rebellion to recognize how much strength she actually possessed. I blamed them both for my never really getting to know my father, and I never forgave them for going to Italy without me the year before his death. This might sound petty now, but I really thought that inviting me would at least have given me a chance of some relationship with them both. I was graduating high school then, unsure of my future, and prone, like many that age, to blame my parents for my discomfort with the world.
This residue dulled my instincts toward family obligations. I decided not to go home yet, convinced she would still be there when I did. The further I immersed myself in my architectural practice, the more convinced I was that my contentment lay somewhere within the homes I designed.
At that time, I had to finish designing a four-thousand-square-foot residence in Scottsdale, my biggest project to date. The client, a Texas oilman named Cobb, wanted to prove he could outfit his home in Arizona with as much Texas as possible. He fancied himself a 20 century Vanderbilt, but instead of importing Italian marble and Renaissance paintings, he’d commissioned an Austin sculptor to create a work of art for the entryway. The only instructions he’d given was that the sculpture must incorporate a barrel of Texas crude and a football helmet from Texas A&M.
I wrote my mother that I’d come to see her as soon as I could, and I hoped she’d understand. But a few days later, as I sat down to go over the plumbing specs with my Texan, I got a phone call from a doctor named Lardner telling me to hurry.
I prepared for the trip immediately. I’d been living with my wife, Rebecca, in a rented house at the base of Camelback Mountain. She’d grown up in Idaho, and had never been east of Chicago, but we fit well together because she’d saved me from trying to climb the corporate ladder in L.A. (She pointed out that my suits never fit.) In return, I’d convinced her she should teach, like she’d always wanted. So I got my Master’s in architecture, and we moved to Phoenix when Rebecca got a teaching job at a high school there.
To be fair, until the call from Dr. Lardner, my conversations with Rebecca about my family history had given her no desire to meet my mother. She knew I still had resentments. Though we’d talked often about me flying home for a visit, we had never seriously considered Rebecca joining me. So when I broached the topic, she didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t want to meet your mother now, Peter. What good would that do? The poor woman’s dying; she won’t want me there. Who would stay here and pander to Cobb? And what about the other jobs?”
I didn’t answer. We stood in my office on a Saturday morning drinking iced coffee, a worn copy of Cobb’s house plans on the design table.
“I’m not being selfish, honey,” her tone had softened. She rubbed my shoulder while she spoke. “All I’m saying is that it's bad timing. One of us should be here.” Sometimes her pragmatism struck me as downright meanness. I needed to stay, but I had to go. This was Thursday, and I could get a red-eye flight that would allow me to be at my mother’s side by Friday morning. So that’s what I did.
On Tuesday, I buried her.
The thing is, I did have a brother once. My little brother Frankie lived for four days back in 1963—around the time Kennedy was killed. My mother and father had prepared me for his arrival, and although I was only six years old, I knew it was a big event. I waited for that kid as if he were going to be my very own possession. Secretly, I collected shiny rocks and smooth sea glass and stored them away in a shoebox in my closet so that one day, when the kid was old enough, I would have something to give him on his birthday. My parents decided the baby would sleep in my room, his crib in the corner under the light, but not too close to the window.
So when I found out Frankie wouldn’t be coming home, I couldn’t understand it. I asked my father repeatedly, Where was Frankie? Didn’t he want to meet his big brother?
“Don’t ask me that, Pete,” my father said. Even at that age I could tell when he was thinking about something else. His eyes, though directed toward the television, were focused on the wall above and behind it. He looked at me, finally, and then this six-year-old understood what Frankie being dead really meant.
My father brought my mother home from the hospital the next day. From my bedroom window next to Frankie’s crib, I watched him open the door and help her out of the car. Our neighbor, Mr. Altobelli, his wife and two dogs looked on from their driveway as my parents walked slowly into the house leaning against each other, as if one wrong move and they would both fall to the ground in a heap. They walked into the living room, my father holding an overnight bag at his side. I stayed in my room, kneeling at the foot of my bed, as I heard them climb the creaking stairs and go into the bedroom and close the door. In a minute or two my father came out.
“Where’s Mom?” I asked, standing in my bedroom doorway.
“Go out and play, Pete,” he said, walking down the stairway, still carrying the overnight bag.
The first thing I thought was that I’d done something wrong. I took the shoebox of rocks and sea glass from under the crib and headed for the attic. Maybe I’d scared Frankie away. I didn’t know what to feel. When I came back down I wanted to see my mother, but my father told me she needed to rest.
“Do as I say, Pete,” he said.
And I did. I went out, walked down the street, sat on the edge of the sidewalk near the bus graveyard, and I cried. When I went home later that afternoon, the crib and all the other things my mother and father had prepared for the baby had disappeared. Frankie would be with us though, the baby who never arrived, as if he were a piece of our lives hidden away in the attic with the old clothes we would never use but couldn’t give away.
Death has more to do with who’s left than with who isn’t.
My father’s name was Vincent DiMarco, and he loved television almost as much as he loved my mother.
She said never to ask him which one he preferred, because she didn’t want to know the answer. But I knew the answer, and so did she, despite her good-natured protests. She often showed this fun-loving side, but after Frankie died it disappeared, along with her smile and my relationship with my father.
A nightly fixture on his brown Naugahyde chair, my father would fall asleep in front of the local newscast at eleven o’clock, his head back and his snoring mouth wide open. By day he worked for a masonry contractor laying stone and bricks. Although he never said so, I’m sure he wanted me to be a mason like him and his father. But by the time I reached working age, he and I didn’t have much to say to each other. So we never had that big talk about my future, which was fine with me. He had enough on his mind with keeping my mother happy. Not that she demanded his attention all of the time. The circumstances of her life weighed heavily on her, and she needed to know my father was there. He did this well; his attentiveness toward her, to the exclusion of everyone else, including me, was a constant reminder of the very thing they were trying to forget. So, would it have mattered if I became a mason’s apprentice? My father wouldn’t have noticed. I wanted to get out of town anyway, out of Rhode Island and out of New England in general, and he knew it but never understood why.
He died of a stroke at age fifty-three. I was eighteen.
One night as I watched the after-dinner news with my parents--stories about negotiating peace treaties and rising gas prices--I imagined what it would be like not to be the only child. When I was home, my parents never said much, even to each other. If the television was on, forget it. I was fifteen by then, and Frankie would be almost nine. He and I could be playing football or building a tree fort.
The silence got to me. Hadn’t I paid enough? My mother sat next to my father on the couch, legs outstretched in his jeans and white socks. I waited for one of their mouths to move. Every now and then, I’d look back at them to see if they were sleeping.
Finally, I said what I said: “Dad, after Frankie died, did you ever think about having another baby?”
The look my father gave me, as if he were hit over the head by someone he’d trusted, lasted only a second before he stood up and gave me a quick backhand to the face. He stood over me, and I thought, I could take him, this son of a bitch. My mother screamed then, because I think she saw the look on my face, and my fists clenching. My face throbbed, but I didn’t cry.
“Don’t you ever talk about that in front of your mother,” he yelled.
“It’s okay, Vince!” my mother said. “Please.”
“We don’t talk about that, Helen. He knows that.”
I ran out of the house while they argued about what I said, what I could say, and what I shouldn’t. I’d felt my whole life that we were in a permanent state of doing penance, and if they blamed anyone it should be Frankie, not me. He was the one who hadn’t shown up. I didn’t see what I’d done to deserve all this silence. I found myself hating both my father and my dead brother as I ran out of the house into the September night.
I soon joined my friends: Big Christopher, Stevie Astrologo, and Chuckie Mac, and we headed for the bus graveyard, our hangout at the end of our dead end street. The graveyard was a life in itself. As we grew, it was where we went exploring, to test the boundaries of childhood and adolescence.
There were twenty-eight buses: some frames, others just a chassis, a few engines. They were silver and rusted and didn’t have any tires. They’d been left there after a bus line went out of business in the late 1950’s. Something vaguely threatening and exhilarating lurked within each of the gutted buses, which heightened our imaginations as we created our own world.
There was the bus Old Man Monahan had lived in until he died one night, throat cut, and his mongrel dog whimpering at his side. And over there was the one where two older teenagers, a boy and girl, had spent the night hiding from their parents, and then disappeared. Almost directly in the center of the graveyard, four of the buses were intact. We’d cleared out an area between the four, and had made a maze of paths around the rest. The interior of the buses had long since been overgrown by vines, and become homes to bats, birds and snakes. We were a group of boys with unsettled feelings about our lives, inherently afraid but covering it with bravado in the face of menace.
Someone mentioned the incredible purplish blue sky--probably Chuckie, who was always looking up hoping to see a UFO--but I didn’t look, preferring my own brooding thoughts. As we walked along the path to the hangout, my face still hurt a little, though I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. We heard voices and laughter as we got to the graveyard and we saw the other gang, with the new kid, Willie, at the center of things. They sat in a circle on the brown grass and dirt, passing around a joint.
We walked past them without saying a word. Someone said, “Faggots,” but nothing got started—not yet—as we took our positions next to a bus. Chuckie tossed us each a cigarette, and we lit up, sitting uncomfortably on the dirt.
After my mother’s funeral, I spent some time on the telephone with Jennifer, my new assistant. She was dealing with customers, especially the Texan, who found my sudden departure inconvenient.
“What’s a W.C.?” she said, frustration in her voice. “It’s on the plans about six times, and Mr. Cobb doesn’t know if he needs six of them.”
“It stands for Water Closet—remember? Toilets? And yes, he does need six of them because he wanted six bathrooms.”
“Toilets, that’s right.”
“Jennifer,” I said, pacing the bare floor of my parents’ living room, “can you handle all this? Should I ask Rebecca to help?” She said she was fine but I didn’t believe her. All I could think about was the Texan talking with some other architect, or maybe he’d paid a couple hundred dollars for plans he’d seen in some home-design book. I couldn't believe I agreed to do this job without a deposit.
“I’d better come back.” I said, knowing full well I couldn’t.
“No. Finish what you’re doing. I’ll handle this guy,” she said. “He’s starting to piss me off.” Then she said she’d been heartbroken when her aunt died the year before, and she could only imagine what it must feel like to lose your mother.
“I gotta go now, Jennifer. "I’ll call you later.”
I sorted through old clothes for hours, deciding what to keep and what to throw out, until I embraced the idea of a yard sale. Saturday was only a few days away, and I thought I could be ready. It felt mercenary in a way, but I needed to put this all behind me and get back home. I would sell what was in the house, put the house on the market, and then I would leave.
I cleaned out the attic. I searched between two floor joists and under a plank, and I found there the shoebox with the sea glass and rocks I’d saved for Frankie. I’d found most of the rocks, but none of the glass, at the bus graveyard. The shoebox was so dusty the glass and rocks appeared duller than I remembered. I wiped off the dust with my fingertips. There were about fifty pieces in all. Some mica, pyrite, obsidian. Four or five chips of granite. Twenty or so green, brown, and white pieces of smoothed-off sea glass. I went down to the living room and among a pile of cardboard boxes, a mountain of clothes, and with a shoebox full of rocks and sea glass on my lap, I imagined myself looking for beautiful rocks with Frankie, showing him how to find the best ones.
The next day I drove into Providence to look around. Through the East Side, busy with college students, and then downtown where I’d heard a drafting supply store was going out of business. As I walked along a busy sidewalk, I was astonished to see Willie, the one who I’d had that fight with when we were kids—the fight my mother had written about in her last letter to me. What were the chances? But when I remembered where I was, I realized this wasn't so surprising. Rhode Island covered just over a thousand square miles, so there wasn’t much room to hide. You could fit over a hundred Rhode Islands into the state of Arizona. And two-hundred-fifty into Texas. These were convenient statistics when I told my current friends of my need for room to stretch out a little.
Now, of all people, I was confronted with Willie. He still had his Coke-bottle glasses, and he wore jeans and penny loafers. The tail of his white shirt popped out of the back of his pants, just like I remembered, and he held a black violin case tightly. As he came toward me, I almost pretended I didn’t see him—I almost walked the other way into the crowd along the sidewalk. I could have moved to my right, slipping behind a couple of joggers checking their pulses. But they moved too fast, weaving in and out of the crowd, leaving me to deal with Willie all by myself.
“Peter DiMarco,” he said with a wide grin, “how are you?” As he reached to shake my hand, his smile covered his whole face until he was all teeth and gums and funny little eyes behind those glasses. The crowd filed past, and we moved into the doorway of an antique shop.
“Willie Stanton,” I said, holding out my hand. He shifted the violin case to his left arm. He told me to call him Bill, please. Nobody had called him Willie since he was a kid. He moved the case to the other arm, said I was looking good, and wasn’t it amazing two guys who were so small as kids could grow to be over six feet tall. Yes, amazing. He kept firing questions at me like he was afraid of the silence.
God, I thought, what the hell am I doing here? Two weeks ago I was outside Phoenix water skiing on Lake Pleasant with Rebecca. Now I was standing in the doorway of an antique shop in Providence, Rhode Island, with a guy I hadn’t seen in years, talking about nothing, but feeling there was something terribly important we needed to discuss.
“Things are good,” Bill said. “I went to the Conservatory after high school. Since then, I’ve been doing some playing,” he said. “I had a tryout with the Philharmonic.”
“That’s great,” I said, nodding like an approving parent, “but I don’t remember you being in the band.”
He said he wasn’t. He’d taken violin lessons on the side, but hadn’t let anyone know. I remembered what assholes teenage boys could be about someone playing anything like the violin; good move not telling anyone. I wondered if any of the people passing us were listening. The sun hit the back of my head and neck, and I suddenly imagined us under this enormous spotlight.
“I sometimes wondered about you, Peter,” Willie said. “You know, where you ended up. Arizona, huh?”
“Yeah, I’ve been all over,” I said, “but I’ll be here for a little while, I guess. My mother died, and I have to deal with the estate.” Why was I telling him this?
He said he was sorry, and I’m sure he meant it. Then he asked me if I was married, and I told him I was. “I was married once,” he said, as if marriage were an exotic landmark he’d seen once while driving out in the country. “But it didn’t work out. I found it too distracting; I think my wife did too.”
We promised to keep in touch, maybe go out for a beer. We exchanged phone numbers over our cell phones. I told him about the yard sale, and he said he’d try to come over.
It was so strange to see him. People from your past can have that effect. You see them, and you remember things you hadn’t thought about in ten or twenty years. When Willie and I were kids our neighborhood was in a sort of upheaval. At fifteen, the two of us and our respective groups of friends spent our time trying to stay out of each other’s way. Willie and his mother moved into our neighborhood shortly after her second divorce. Their tiny ranch house sat on a sunburned lot alongside the border of two rival neighborhoods. Brown grass and fading green bushes covered the lot. Next to them, the graveyard of abandoned buses stretched toward the woods.
The house seemed tired, neglected by a succession of residents. Its weathered cedar shingles and peeling shutters stood in contrast to the sprawling new Colonials on two-acre lots all around our neighborhood. This was the 1970’s, and most of the natives of Twin Oaks, Rhode Island, spent their time trying to keep the rest of the world at a distance. To a kid—to me and my friends—this was a kind of a war against an enemy hard to define. It was probably a matter of not wanting to lose what we had, although back then we never could have said what that was.
The day Willie moved in, he and his mother emptied a pickup truck full of boxes and battered suitcases. Chuckie Mac and I sat across the street. Maybe he’d be okay, this new boy with a surprised look on his face. We didn’t know then that he’d moved from house to house with his mother, and that he’d never met his father. And if we had, would we have treated him any differently? I was about to suggest we go meet this new kid, find out his name. He seemed to be about my size, which I liked.
“They’re losers,” Chuckie said in his Rhode Island accent that made loser come out “loozah.” “Look at him. Those glasses. They couldn’t even afford a moving van.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Look at them.” And I felt I’d lost something, and had no idea what it could possibly have been.
At first the kids from the other neighborhood treated Willie like we did. We wanted nothing to do with him—a scrawny thing with thick glasses and buck teeth. His voice was higher than those of some girls we knew. One late afternoon, while five or six of us smoked and traded stories about the girls we’d felt up, Willie showed up at our hangout in the graveyard. Big Christopher was there, and Stevie Astrologo, with his squint and one long eyebrow, and Chuckie McKenna, maybe a couple more.
“What do you want?” Christopher said. Willie stood there looking like he would melt into the ground if we weren’t nice to him. Little did he know we’d already formed opinions, and like official representatives of the town, we had to do our part to keep out people who didn’t belong.
“Who are you?” I said, standing.
He told us his name and, turning and pointing, said he’d moved into that house over there. When Christopher said his name—Willie—that first time we all thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. He dwarfed Willie as he told him he’d better get going—he’d interrupted a private conversation. As we laughed and celebrated our small victory, I watched Willie—the look on his face. He didn’t melt, but simply accepted our rejection. He turned and walked away, holding his head higher than we wanted him to.
I lit a cigarette as I stood in front of my yard sale assessing what had been sold. Except for the television, all the electronics—microwave, blender, toaster, and even the old hi-fi—sold early in the day. The china set, my dad’s collection of Montovani albums, the fake fruit made of marble, and the American Tourister luggage were all gone too. I’d brought the television outside, set it down on an old oak desk and turned it on so I could watch some Saturday morning shows.
I wasn’t surprised when Willie walked up my driveway. He was alone, smiling widely, glasses falling off the bridge of his nose. We shook hands and I said it was good to see him again. After looking around for bit, he said he wanted the wooden frames from the family photos I’d displayed along the perimeter of a flowerbed. I said, “Sold.” I’d arranged the twelve pictures in chronological order against the rocks my father had placed there years before.
“You can have all of it,” I said, “the pictures and the frames.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “You should keep the photos.”
He looked away, toward a brass floor lamp in the corner of the yard. “Peter,” he said, gazing past the lamp and toward where he used to live, “have you been down there? To the graveyard?”
“No,” I said, “I haven’t had the time. Have you?”
Before he could answer, more neighbors arrived, offering consolation as they held my mother’s things. Most of them I didn’t know, but there was Mrs. Zinni and her deaf husband, Arthur, and then Mr. Altobelli, picking through some boxes on a card table with the stubby fingers of one hand, holding his two Dobermans by leather leashes with the other. He’d been a friend of my parents, and my mother had written about the kindness he’d shown her while she was sick. He knew I hadn’t been there for her.
“They’re beautiful,” I told him, “the dogs." He studied a glass ashtray from Rome.
“Thanks, Peter,” he said, still looking at the ashtray. Then he placed it back in a box and looked around.
“Mr. Altobelli,” I said, “do you know what everyone says about Dobermans? They’re the most loyal dogs there are. I have a Doberman myself, from all those years of living next door to you.” Then I bent down and patted one of them on the head, wondering if the dog could smell the lie on my hands.
“Hubcaps?” he said.
“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any hubcaps.” I said this as if I were breaking some very sad news to him.
He gave a perfunctory nod, and turned to leave with his dogs.
I stood up. “Everything must go, though,” I said to him like a salesman.
The telephone rang in the house, and as I walked past neighbors and others, Willie waved goodbye from his car and said we’d talk soon. I flipped my cigarette butt, and got to the phone by the fourth ring.
“Peter.” Rebecca’s voice sounded farther away than Phoenix.
I said hello.
“The Texan is pissing me off, Peter.” She went on to describe her day, which included a phone call from Jennifer at eight in the morning. She said she’d gone as far as she could with Mr. Cobb, who wanted me back there to review changes immediately. Cobb would sooner have a blizzard on a Sunday in August than to be made to wait for anything.
“Does that idiot know my mother just died?”
“Of course he does. He sent you flowers. They’re on your desk.” She laughed a little, and so did I. “He said, ‘Tell your hubby boy I’m sure sorry.’”
“Then he said something real friendly, like, ‘business is business,’ right?”
“This guy’s unbelievable.”
I told Rebecca I couldn’t come, and that she would have to do something, anything, to placate him.
“Is everything going all right, Peter? You sound like shit.”
“Things have been happening here, Becky,” I said. “I don’t know how long it will take me to resolve them.”
“Have you been sleeping at all?” she said, her voice now turning sweet.
“Please,” I said, “call Cobb and try to stall him. I can’t come home now. There’s too much going on here.” We talked for a few more minutes and she assured me that she’d handle it, although neither of us really knew how. At that point, I was too spent to care.
At three o’clock in the morning, as I tried to sleep in the living room, I heard a rustling in the bushes outside. It could have been the wind through the trees. Or maybe the eighty-year-old house was settling a little. I almost called Rebecca, but then she’d know I wasn’t asleep yet, so I listened, hoping whatever it was, outside or in, would go away. Lying in the dark with my eyes shut, I imagined my dead mother and father standing over me wanting to talk. For a while I stayed motionless, wearing only my underwear and a blanket, afraid to open my eyes because a ghost might be in the room. My heart beat heavily as I began to imagine Frankie standing with them, at an age he never reached, waiting for me to say hello.
I heard a noise outside again, and without considering what I was doing I bolted up and ran across the cold hardwood floor to the window. There was nothing there but the sound of my heart. A coating of dew had formed on the grass. I put on some clothes and went out the front door, wondering how low the temperature would fall. It had been seventy degrees earlier in the day, but September in Rhode Island meant anything could happen with the weather. I looked into the calm black night, down the street to the end of the cul-de-sac. There, the bus graveyard swallowed the night. It wasn’t a place to visit in the dark, but, still barefoot, I walked down the short driveway and stopped to look. Against the blackness of the sky I could make out the tree line, and in front of it, Willie’s old house. I found myself walking toward it. When I reached the edge of his lawn, even in the dim light from the street lamps and the half-moon, I could see the house had changed. The siding had been re-done—red cedar clapboard now covered the exterior. The owners had spent a lot of money on the roof, using dimensional asphalt shingles, and all the windows were double-hung thermopanes.
In the thickness of a cool night in New England, I could hear the echoes of boys’ voices coming from the graveyard over fifteen years before. What I’d lost, I realized, was a chance with Willie—to be his friend and for him to be mine. Just like I’d lost the chance with Frankie. The echoes of the voices from the past grew louder, and I moved toward the blackness of the graveyard and stood shivering outside, looking in.
The fight had taken place the same night my father had slapped me. A dozen boys circled around us an hour before sunset. It was still warm out as the bus graveyard vibrated to life, crickets squealing and birds calling out everywhere. Somehow Willie had latched on to the rival gang. We speculated about for months after, but all that was important in the moment was that he was theirs. In the code of fifteen year old boys, a fight was in order--and Willie and I matched up well.
“Hit him!” someone shouted, and then Little Willie and I traded missed punches back and forth. Yells of get him and hit him and knock him on his ass surrounded us as I concentrated on his puny face. Without his glasses he looked more focused. Maybe it was his squint, but I also thought he couldn’t see me—this explained why he kept missing. I didn’t know why I was missing. Then he caught me with a jab and I tasted blood. He hit me again, on the same cheek my father had slapped.
I got mad and hit him right in the mouth, then slugged him again across his bony nose and forehead, pushing him toward the side of a silvery bus shell. I ignored the pain in my hands as I jumped on top of him, pinning his arms to the dirt with my knees as I breathed in the dusty air, and the yells and hoots drilled through the graveyard. By the time the other boys pulled me off of him, his face looked like that of a dead soldier I’d seen on TV, only his eyes were open and he was crying.
Afterwards, as my lips swelled as we all stood around and smoked, both gangs grouped together in a ritual that occurred after all such altercations. When they’d wiped all the dirt off Willie’s clothes and out of his hair, they figured he’d be okay because he’d stopped crying. He put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them and handed one to me. It made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t feel the cigarette because of my numbed lips, but I smoked anyway.
Willie smiled. He’d shown us he was tough enough, no matter that he’d taken the worst of it. As for me, there was no satisfaction in what I’d done. My face hurt, and my mother and father were still waiting for me to come home.
I turned away from Willie’s house, the bus graveyard, and a fifteen-year-old boy, and walked back up my street, a thirty-three-year-old man, barefoot and shivering from the damp cold. Up the same driveway my parents had walked after Frankie died. I went inside.
Back on the couch, I draped the blanket over myself and used a rolled-up towel for a pillow and another to cover my feet. Everything left of my mother’s was packed away. I lay on my back studying each crack in the plastered ceiling and the house suddenly felt as big as it had when I was growing up. Surrounded by taped cardboard boxes with black magic marker scribblings, I closed my eyes and thought about ghosts. Let them come if they want to talk to me. I wanted to talk to them, too.
When the phone rang the next afternoon, I thought it might be Rebecca reporting on her efforts to placate the Texan, but it was someone named Anita instead. Even though she asked for me, I suggested maybe she had the wrong number. After a pause, she said she was sorry for interrupting my day, but that she was calling for Bill Stanton, and he was hoping—they were both hoping—I would come over for dinner that evening.
Why were they doing this, I thought. Had she and Bill talked about me after he came home from the yard sale with the photos? Did he say, Anita, I went to that guy's yard sale, the one from my old neighborhood whose mother died. Look what I’ve got. And did Anita answer, That’s terrible, to sell all his mother’s belongings. And the pictures? Doesn’t he have a heart? Though her presumptuousness was entirely my own, I suddenly felt an irrational resentment at her and Bill. I wanted to tell her that Willie and me, we didn’t even know each other very well, we’d never really been friends. Instead, after looking around the living room at the empty bookcases and bare walls, I thought better of it. I declined the dinner, but asked her to tell Bill that I wanted to meet him that night, just before sunset.
“Tell him that I’ll be at the old bus graveyard,” I said. “Tell him it’s important.”
I carried the shoebox down the street and right into the middle of the graveyard. Still there, overgrown with vines, the yard and its contents existed like discarded trash, but somehow it was the only place developers had ignored over the years. And despite the empty bottles and spent butts scattered around, the place still maintained a sense of dignity, like a monument to the past that is preserved for all future generations to experience. I was leaning against one of the gutted buses smoking a cigarette and clenching the shoebox against my side when I saw Bill. He said hello, and we sat on the ground like we used to.
He pointed toward his old house. “Did you see how they’ve fixed it up?”
“They did a nice job.”
“First things first,” Bill said, handing me a pile of photographs. “I only wanted the frames.”
I stood up, motioned to Bill that I’d be back, and walked a narrow path among the buses. I carried the shoebox in one hand, the photos in the other. A long time ago, my friends and I had labeled this place a graveyard. I wondered now how accurate this was. The buses hadn’t disintegrated into nothing. Just like the buildings I designed or the ones my father built, these rusted, broken down frames had survived. I was surprised at the resilience. I looked again at the photos. Who had taken these pictures of my parents, I wondered, on the streets of Rome, in front of the Vatican? Had the person sensed that my parents were suffering?
But when I looked at them closely, I saw for the first time how their expressions told a story. I imagined my mother’s smile directed at me, telling me they’d survived. My father, his chin raised slightly, showed me the pride he had misplaced after Frankie died. Although this wasn’t long before he died himself, they had found for a little while the sustenance they needed to remain together.
I wondered why I had never seen this side of my father and why neither of them had let me in on their secret of learning to live a life without falling apart. I only had to look at their faces to find the answers. People find strength from different places. For my parents, it was each other. Strength was something hidden and personal that kept you in place and held you together for one more day. Sometimes that strength gave out too soon, and when that happened you shouldn’t call it weakness. It only meant--like my mother had written in the letter--that there wasn’t enough to go around. I would have to find my own reserve.
I walked back to Bill and sat down. Before I uncovered the box, I told him there was so much I wanted to say.
“It’s okay, Peter," he said. "You’re with friends here.” And I knew he was right.
I cradled Frankie’s shoebox and the photos of my parents and I thought, everything is here—right here in front of me. Then I handed the shoebox to Willie, and watched him look inside.