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Book I: Thumper
Chapter One: 80 Chandler
In grainy gloom, beneath black drapes, the rhythmic radiator clanks, as if a metal man were slowly climbing up the fire escape. Down town Worcester trucks and taxis groan and grumble like hungry beasts five floors below. In ringing moments of late silence, the city's alarming lullaby all but hushed, I hear the hissing whisper of my blood's journey and the shrill whistle of electricity within me.|
I just can't sleep, until I just can't stay awake.
And suddenly the drapes are forest green, and I can hear the whoosh and slap of the big, white, round washing machine, hand-cranked wringers on top. My mother's doing the laundry in the kitchen. Climbing out of my crib - front bars lowered - I put on my trusty red felt cowboy hat with chewed up, salty rawhide chinstrap, wobble around my parents' bed past the hall alcove - all dark wood framed in forest green - and through the kitchen door.
As if in response to my entry, my mother swoons and collapses to the floor, so very slowly. She sinks first to her knees, now to her hip, wrapped in a white linen apron, to her elbow, her shoulder. She rolls over, face first, arms pinned beneath her.
Frozen, I watch as she tries to rise on her elbows and crawl out of the thick white suds billowing onto the linoleum from over the towering washer's lip. But she can't, and the foam spreads slowly around her pale blue housedress. I stand helplessly, hot tears stinging.
The water, still pumping into the washer through the black hose connected to the high sink faucet, begins to overflow like a fountain, spreading the foam across the whole room. Her sudden sobbing spurs me to action. But, running to her aid, I slip and fall, cracking the back of my head on the wet, sudsy floor. I start wailing.
During a quavering breath, I hear a key click-clicking in the lock. My father bursts through the door, followed by Uncle Billy. Slipping and sliding across the floor, Billy turns off the faucet. Together they lift her out of the foam, wrap her in a blanket and carry her to bed.
After changing her clothes, they take her to the hospital, leaving me downstairs with Charlie Malonis, the short-order cook at the Blue Belle Diner, right next door to our building. Hugging my Child's Garden of Verses and a little pillow that Gram made, I curl up in the corner booth while Charlie grills me an emergency corn muffin with lots of butter, which I wash down with a glass of cold milk.
Withdrawing into spheres of brightly colored fantasies about hiding beneath carpets, ships at sea, puffins, owls and pussycats and radiator lions, I'm careful to avoid touching the page with the big, shiny, black spider in the upper left hand corner.
I go through the whole book once, talk to Charlie for a while, and enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich and chocolate milk. After lunch and a short nap, I re-read all my favorites. I can read some words, but I know the stories well because my mother has read them to me so many times, me nestled in her lap, watching her white finger slide from word to word as she reads.
I play Vaughn Monroe's Riders In the Sky and Frankie Laine's Mule Train on the little red and silver Nickelodeon mounted beneath the window in my booth. I play them each twice. Kneeling at the window, I watch the people walking by below. More and more cars, trucks and buses drive by, more and more slowly as rush hour arrives. The last ray of sun paints a golden triangle high on the corner of a brick building down the street. The glowing triangle gets smaller and smaller, finally disappearing. Headlights come on. The big neon teddy bear on the front of the tire store across the street flashes on. He's wearing a nightgown and nightcap. Under one arm he carries a tire. The yellow candle in his other paw flickers yellow in the gloom.
When my father finally returns, he gives me a teddy bear. Eagerly accepting the cuddly bear, I quickly name him Teddy. His soft fur is light brown except for his off-white feet, belly and muzzle. Each shiny, black button eye contains a softly glowing golden circle. I clutch him tightly all night long in my crib, listening to the traffic, the radiator, my blood, and my father as he turns and tosses, alone in their bed.
My grandmother moves into our three-room apartment to take care of me until my mother gets back from the hospital. She sleeps on the couch in the small, dark brown living room, where we try to take afternoon naps together. Fascinated by the folds of fat that hang like blue veined breasts upon her arms, I gently grasp the smooth, soft skin and shake it, making pale ripples, until she gets tired of it and pinches my cheek, hard.|
Sometimes we play a game involving the reflections cast on the ceiling by cars, buses and trucks passing below. The images are so clear you can see each vehicle's color and shape. We have to identify the type and color and whether it's going up Chandler, or down. The tricky part is that a car driving up the hill, from right to left, casts an image on the ceiling that appears to go down the hill, from left to right. "Blue truck, up." "Red car, down." "Yellow cab, up. No, down." We laugh together. Gram and I have lots of fun when we're supposed to be napping.
My mother's been home from the hospital for a few weeks now. The doctors don't know what's wrong with her, but she says she's feeling a little bit better every day. For the first few days, she lay almost motionless in her bed, able to control only her head and her right arm from the elbow down. She could hold my hand for a few moments and softly speak a few words. I was only allowed to see her for a few minutes at a time, because she needed her rest.|
Then she got well enough to sit up in bed. Her hands and arms recovered first, so she could feed herself, hold a book, do a little crocheting, and hug me. After a while, she could come out of the bedroom, leaning unsteadily on my father's arm, to go to the bathroom. Then she could get to the bathroom by herself, using a cane, Gram or my father close by her, ready to catch her if she fell.
Now she can walk around the apartment, eat at the table and sit in the living room. We get to talk more, and she reads to me at bedtime again. Gram still does the laundry, the housework, and most of the cooking, but my mother made breakfast Sunday morning, and even washed the dishes. Now she washes the dishes every day. Gram says she'll probably move back next month to her third story flat on Belmont Hill.
Early one Spring Sunday morning my mother, my father and I get All Dressed Up and walk out of the apartment, the three of us, together, down the dark brown hallway and into the aluminum mesh elevator, suspended within a wrought iron cage. My father closes the outer black-iron gate with a clang, and slithers the aluminum inner door shut. I get to push the big button with the arrow pointing down. The elevator lurches, swaying and clattering. Through the black and silver filigree, we watch the hall floor rise. Looking down, we can see through the floor, all the way to the shaft's murky bottom. My mother hangs on for dear life. My father laughs. I do both.|
We step out onto the bright concrete landing. My mother's legs are stronger. She walks without a cane, although my father hangs one on his arm, just in case. Charlie Malonis waves through the window of the Blue Belle. Arm-in-arm, we descend the few concrete steps to the sidewalk and turn right, down the Chandler Street hill past McIntire's baby furniture store, which takes up the whole first floor of our red brick tenement building. There's red brick everywhere along our sunny way to church.
Once inside the church, the same sun streams through stained glass scenes - through the ruby hearts and crosses, and Christ's cobalt robe and huge, sad eyes, upturned to golden beams of Heaven. I'm hypnotized by the blazing brilliance of the windows. Nothing can break the trance, certainly not the minister's meaningless drone. My focus dilates from its glowing heart center to include all I see. Ghostly white, lilies line the altar - the sanctuary smells so sweet. I sleep.
Before going home, we get to eat breakfast at the Blue Belle. The sky blue and cream-colored door slides open to reveal a real railroad style dining car - checkerboard floor tiles, booths with coat hooks and little Nickelodeons, and red-upholstered barstools trimmed with shiny aluminum studs and strips. Joe Fadoul, who owns and operates the diner, comes out from behind the counter to personally welcome back my mother. Smiling, he guides her into a booth with an open window and gives her a menu while my father talks to Charlie about the Red Sox and the Yankees. I spin around and around, holding on to my stool, fingertips exploring the layers of hardened gum beneath the seat.|
"Stop that, please," my mother calls. "Tell Charlie what you want and then go wash your hands."
On the way to the rest room I pass Charley Bagles, the Dishwasher. He seems to be always worried - a young man, he already has big, permanent lines in his forehead. I've never seen such deep, black lines. Charlie Malonis says Charley Bagles spent some time in jail, but he doesn't know why, and Charley Bagles doesn't talk much at all.
Looking in the mirror, I notice the handprint has almost faded. I think back to Friday night, when we all came down for grilled swordfish, thick and juicy, drenched in butter and lemon.
Charlie and Joe were asking about the bright red handprint covering the left side of my face. I told them what my mother had told me to say if anybody asked, after she told him never to hit me again:
"My father hit me."
Laughing, my father raised his hands and shook his head. "Well, yes, I did," he admitted, "but I was aiming for his butt, and he was squirming around so fast, I got the wrong end!" He didn't tell them how I cried so hard I turned blue and passed out. Neither did I.
Charlie and Joe looked at each other for a moment, and then they laughed a little too.
I suddenly felt hot and sweaty, and excused myself to go to the restroom. In the mirror my face was so red I could hardly make out the handprint.
Charlie makes the best eggs-over-easy in the world. With my flattened, crunchy, butter-grilled English muffin I pierce the thin translucent membrane that's kept the golden yolk from spilling out and drying up. Charlie used to be a prizefighter called Kid Lee - he has a cauliflower ear, facial scars, a squashed nose and a ready, gap-toothed smile.
Charlie and I are both Yankee fans. My father's a Red Sox fan. My mother's a Philadelphia Phillies fan because she was born and raised in Philadelphia. She used to play mandolin in a string band and march in the Mummer's Day parades. She still has two mandolins in the mahogany wardrobe, way up on the top shelf. I like to hear her play. Someday she'll teach me how.
I'm sitting in the cinders under the lonely old crabapple tree behind the Blue Belle. Charlie's face is in the little window over the grill - he glances out every couple of minutes to make sure I'm still here. It's late summer - my mother's fallen again, and is back in the hospital. My father's had to go to work at Western Union and my grandmother can't always take care of me. Charlie always agrees to watch me, if it's only for a few hours.|
We're in a small concrete courtyard, Clowny and me - high walls on three sides, the diner to the front, and a lawn of reddish black cinders instead of grass. Except for Charlie's head, the crabapple tree is the only life in sight. They say the tree is very old, that it was here before anything else on the block. Before the Blue Belle, before Al's Flying A, even before 80 Chandler.
Clowny is a doll my father won for me last week, the day after he had to take my mother back to the hospital. We took a cab to Union Station, where we rode the Dummy Railroad to Lincoln Park, and sparkling Lake Quinsigamond. We had hot dogs, Cokes, and ice cream. We sat on a bench at sunset and watched the sailboats return. Across the lake, White City's 50,000 lights lit up the night.
"We have to be brave," he said, out of nowhere, gazing across, elbows on knees, hands folded.
"Yup," I agreed, feeling closer to him than ever before.
Before boarding the train back to Union Square, he knocked down a pyramid of milk bottles with a rubber ball, and asked me which prize I wanted. I chose Clowny.
Her body is covered in corduroy, from her footless legs and handless arms to the peak of her head, from which I've already chewed the jingle bell. Her left side is green, her right side red. Her face is a white, plastic shell, slightly dented on one cheek. I've learned that if you press your thumb against her pink cheek enough to make it buckle a little, it will pop back to its original shape. I've also learned that if you make it buckle a little more it will stay buckled. There are blue triangles above her round, black eyes and lashes, and red circles on her cheeks, all painted on, like her little red smile. She's leaning against the rough bark because her arms and legs don't bend. I'm playing with my painted lead soldiers, building a fort in the cinders. The soldiers are heavy as they fall. Their lips are never painted on exactly right, as if their lipstick has been smudged in battle. Sudden raindrops are quickly absorbed into dry, porous cinders. I grab Clowny by her peaked hat and run into the diner, leaving my soldiers, all dead, in their fort.
Joe Fadoul makes the best spaghetti and meatballs in the world (except for Tony Esposito's wife, according to Tony). I'm sitting at the counter cutting my spaghetti by the case of golden corn and tan bran muffins, shaped like little loaves of bread.
Tony bellows, "Hey! Where the hell did you learn how to eat spaghetti?" He reaches in front of me and drags my plate over next to his thick, tan mug of regular coffee. Charlie slaps a spoon on the counter before he's asked.
"Let me show you how to eat spaghetti," says Tony, expertly harpooning just a few strands, spinning them into a spoon-sized spool and guiding them into my mouth. Tony owns and operates Tony's Barber Shop, directly across Chandler from Al's Flying A. He invented the Tone-Ease, the electric razor with interchangeable attachments.
I practice my twirling while trying not to stare at the old man seated to my right. He comes in every day. He has Parkinson's disease. Beneath his gray plaid wool motoring cap, his face is gnome-like, with its long, crooked, pointed nose, great, white, bushy eyebrows, eyes hidden in deep caves; gaunt cheeks, and an enormous, protruding, trembling lower lip. He leans forward and opens wide, but as his severely shaking hand dips his spoon into the watery broth and slowly raises it, drawing small soupy circles in the air, it is already half empty. And once it repeatedly slaps against that swollen, quivering lip, most of what is left runs down his quaking chin and onto the extra napkin he has wisely tucked into his collar.
Unsteadily, Poor Old Freddy walks in and collapses into the booth by the door, where I usually sit. Without a word Charlie brings around a mug of black coffee and places it on Freddy's table. Freddy smiles up gratefully. Joe and Charlie call him Poor Old Freddy when he's not there. They feel sorry for him because he's wasting his potential and because he has a big heart and is too generous with the little money he does have. He used to be a gym teacher, a coach, and Kid Lee's trainer. But now he lives in a flophouse and drinks all day. My father has told me not to talk to him.
"Ah, he's a drunk," says Tony, sometimes even when Freddy's there. "A bum!"
I finish my spaghetti and go over to Freddy's booth. He motions me to sit down and pulls out his wallet, which makes me nervous because I think he's going to offer me money.
Freddy says, "Whaddaya gonna be when you grow up?"
"A cowboy," I reply.
"Lemme show ya something here," he says, opening his billfold so I can see the bills inside. He points to George Washington's picture on the first bill. "Do ya know who that is?" he asks with a yellow smile. And of course I do because I was born on George Washington's birthday.
"See how they're all facing the same way?" - and yes, they're all lined up facing in the same direction. He takes one out and puts it in upside down. "Don't ever put him in like this because he can see out. And if he can see out, he can get out!" Chuckling, he replaces the bill correctly and puts away his wallet.
"Don't forget that," he winks.
And I won't.
Copyright by Stephen Benjamin Martin
All Rights Reserved
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