Just How I
Zach Attack prefers our bed when Gary’s away and he looks so comfortable there. I know it’s cruel to wrench him from that quiet drift atop the sheets, but I’ve no choice but to take the little guy with me. I’ve got to get to your house—tonight, in this snow—and see with my own eyes what you’ve left us.
When I fit on Zach’s shoes, he wakes up for a second, squinting at the harsh hallway light, then yawning a singular “Hi, Michael” before falling back asleep. He is Gary’s boy, not mine. I’m not a dad to him yet, but I find myself believing I am. I lower his limp body into the backseat of the Bug, wedging him in like Jor-El’s superbaby, inside a pod bound for the unknown.
You met Zach only once, at last year’s Thanksgiving. He was only six and you had plenty to froth about the little guy then. Zach was just zooming around being Zach, but after Gary’s toast you called him the little shit. What would you say at the sight of him now, snoozing there in the car you suckered Twigs Ullman out of fifteen summers ago? You’d save the stingers for me, your son pretending to be all grown up, a loser still in between jobs and looking like he never eats, the one stupid enough to be driving your silver Bug through a snowstorm late at night with a boy whose real dad is thousands of miles away. Sit back and toast me with your highball glass of Red Label, bucko. Your son is trekking across the boroughs with nothing on but his chucks, some old jeans, and an over-washed shirt, thinning in the shoulders, which Marge and I got when we snuck out of your house to see New Order play Hoboken. Listen closely and in the air is a Fuck you right back, old man, circa 1980.
I take the Bug up the block, to the end of the cul-de-sac. She squeals to a stop. I know the way this fox likes her game hen, you used to say, juicing the car with just enough gas to make it out of the driveway on crisp mornings.
Gary hasn’t picked up his phone or else I really would have bagged this whole business. His simple drawl and common sense, not to mention the safety of his son, would have slapped me awake by now, but I can’t wait. On AM there’s a deep female voice, butch and confident, assuring me the plows are out. I don’t trust a lot of people, but I trust her. I’ve plotted a rough course from Larchmont to Brooklyn. At the light before the expressway, I glance at Zach behind me, watching his arm, long and lanky, scratching at his nose while he sleeps.
The boy has grown a lot in the year since you saw him, maybe even since his dad left last week for the interview. Something in the transition from “Gary’s son Zach” to “our son Zach” has seeded this growth spurt and his thin arms belie all the torqued-up strength stored within them. We catch him in the backyard throwing rocks over the fence just to see how far he can get them to go. He’s only seven, but he’ll make a decent pitcher once he gets his aim. I can tell. Zach says he hates baseball. The cocky little bastard sounds like me at that age, calling it boring and too easy.
I can’t help but think you’d shake your head at the reason I’m going tonight and not tomorrow or next week when Gary’s back. Earlier today, you and your empty house were the furthest from my mind. Zach and I were enjoying our snow day, watching movies and ordering pizza with extra bacon and pineapple, things Gary doesn’t like. By two in the afternoon, the boring parts of Conan the Barbarian had lulled us into a coma. I woke to the sound of the mail tumbling through the door. Included was the final bill from the Vanderbilt Cleaning Company, the folks who last swept through your house. Marge hired them and they seemed professional enough, but there was this strange message scrawled in all caps in the notes section of the bill: LEFT BOX IN KITCHEN.
No one answered at the cleaning company when I called. Marge wouldn’t answer her phone either. I read and re-read that note a hundred times and all I could hear was your beer-battered breath in my ear, your stubble burning my cheeks telling me You’re not making any sense, say whatchya mean or shut the fuck up already. Marge and I lacked focus, you said. We were lazy, you said, just like your mother. We were stubborn kids who kept secrets and did bad things. We were disrespectful. Even years after we’d moved out, with our angst softened enough to include you in the birthdays and holidays we thought we all could handle, you always had the right invective for the occasion. The little shit, that was the tip of the iceberg. So here you are laughing, wherever you are, as your lazy deadbeat son goes chasing after a stupid box.
Before I left, I tried putting the thought away. Zach had settled into Terminator 2. I microwaved popcorn for him and poured a scotch for me. I tried to focus on the movie, telling myself there was a simple reason for the note and that Marge would know what it was. In the time it took for the bill to get to me, I was sure she’d already popped over to your place and found the damn thing, something so silly she hadn’t even thought to mention it.
But the hours kept clicking by and my mind was looping in on itself with theories of postcards and pilfered photos, theories of your life involving hidden compartments and detailed instructions for some unknown task. I was sweating in our hot little house. My clothes felt too tight and my long hair dirty and tangled. All over I was molting. That stupid note--LEFT BOX IN KITCHEN—filled me with an anger I hadn’t felt in a long while, remembering all the fights we had, all the many more I’d imagined in my head.
I locked myself in the bathroom. I stripped and took Gary’s trimmer to hack away at all my hair, my shoulder-length curls floating into the tub. I looked dreadful when it was done, my small scalp a shadow of your younger days in boots and fatigues. I showered for a long time to try and put the thoughts of you behind me, but I couldn’t. When I came down to put Zach to bed, he screamed at the sight of me. I had changed too quickly for him. He ran away as though he was the Conner boy and I was the T1000 that finally found him. When he finally settled down, I let him watch TV in our bed. And when he was at last asleep—the kid kind, deep and heavy—I decided to take him with me to your house.
I’d settled into a lane on the expressway behind one of the plows, when Marge finally picked up her phone. “What are they talking about?” she said. “What box?” The words seemed to curdle in her mouth and I could picture the cupboard glasses rattling as she poured herself scotch from the old hutch.
“Haven’t you been over there? Don’t you know?”
“There’s nothing left,” she said.
We’d sorted through the trash of your life. It is hard to believe we’d missed anything not sold, given away or tossed into the dumpster we rented when the realtor told us the carpet and wallpaper had to go. Gary didn’t notice anything. Zach might have—he’d find treasure anywhere—but I made sure Zach stayed away. You said it yourself, once: A dead man’s house is no place for a boy.
“We must have missed something,” she said so calmly I wanted to smash my phone on the dashboard. I could hear the tinkle of ice cubes and the bloody mamma music corralling behind her. “Probably some crap in the attic,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Why would they go up there?”
“Because I told them to,” she said. “There were cobwebs, remember? You were scared they were going to get tangled up in your stupid hair. Honestly, Michael, cut that mane of yours down before it starts going grey. Are you trying to look like a dirty hippie?” I didn’t say that the long Jew locks I inherited from you were already gone.
“What if dad had something up there he didn’t want us to find?”
“It worked then, Michael. We didn’t find it.”
“Someone found something.”
“They would have called if it was important.”
“Maybe they couldn’t open it.”
“Or it was porn. Honestly, how long do you guys hang on to that shit?”
“It has to be something else.”
There was a long silence as she took slurps from her drink. “Maybe he hid some of mom’s things,” Marge said, as though she’d thought very hard about how to lay the sentence out.
“You would think anything from mom would have been in that tin we found up in the closet, the one you took with his medal and gun.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but maybe there are a couple postcards from Montana or some old things of hers. Do you think?”
“Fuck if I know,” I said, then silence.
“Is Gary there?”
“He’s in San Francisco.”
“With me,” I said, checking my rearview for the umpteenth time. Still asleep.
“Ohhhhhh,” she said and you know that Marge can pile a whole lot of bullshit into a word like that.
“Listen, I’ll call you when Gary’s back and we can go out to the house together,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about the interview that brought Gary to San Francisco or answer her questions about why Gary was taking another stab at the idea that nearly sunk us last summer. All of that would bleed into what I was doing for work—what I was not doing—and all those stupid crazy dreams I had about moving us to California.
“I want to go now,” she slurred, but I had to convince her to stay home, that it was dangerous to take the subway over there at this time of night. I didn’t tell her that she always went first. I didn’t tell her I was already on my way. I didn’t tell her it was my turn now.
I’m making good time. I pull off the Westside Highway as it peters out around Chelsea Piers. The island is full of company tonight. At Fourteenth I cut into the West Village, the streets abuzz with young men that the snow and late hour have not deterred. At the wide confluence of Seventh and Christopher and West Fourth, I get stuck at a light. Groups of men huddle in packs around food carts sizzling with bratwurst and cashews. Others stand near the exit to a nightclub, craning their booze-heavy heads for bargains at the sidewalk sale. A few look the way I used to look: with glittery eye shadow, their bodies shivering in clothes damp with dancehall sweat. When I was younger and you and I came across a group of young men like that—blowing air kisses, telling the world’s stories with their hands—you’d make us cross the street. I didn’t need to hear what you mumbled under your breath.
The light turns green and Zach Attack belches loudly in my ear, shocking me out of my trance.
“Jesus!” I yell back at him and pull over behind a taxi idling in the slush.
“Where are we going?” he says as he crawls his way into the front seat.
“You scared me, Zach.” He is surprised to see himself in pajamas and sneakers. He kicks the glove box.
“Can you stop that?”
“Where are we?”
He puts his feet down and says, “Where are we going?”
“My father’s house.”
“I need to pick up something.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure, bucko. You okay?”
Zach shrugs his shoulders and looks outside. Two young men pull at each others’ coats, arguing playfully. I watch Zach watch them.
“Put your seatbelt on. Your Gameboy is in the bag if you want—”
“I gotta go pee, Michael.”
“Can you hold it? We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“I have to go, Michael,” he whines. I know there’s no fighting this. When I reach Houston Street I take a quick right and double-park, flipping on the hazards.
“Go right outside the door, okay?”
I get out, too. He is shivering there, but not yet doing his business. He sees his own breath and so he puffs up his chest and breathes out in a long, steady hooooooo, fists at his sides like he’s Superman freezing a river of lava. Gary taught him that trick after we watched Superman 2. He’s been doing it ever since. Then he grabs a pile of snow from the curb and packs it in his pink hands.
“Would you just go, please!?”
“I don’t have to anymore,” he shrugs.
“Zach Attack, put that down and try, okay?”
He looks at the bright red Jeep we’ve parked next to. “Can I go on that car?”
He places the snowball down gently on the Jeep’s bumper, wipes his hands on his plaid flannels and does his business into the snow pack along the curb. He takes forever and hums a song I don’t recognize. He makes me feel anxious sometimes, but I can’t help but smile when he starts to headbang, jerking his butt around to the rhythm of his mystery song. It’s very punk rock. Then when he finishes, he goes right for the snowball.
“I won’t throw it!”
“I don’t care if you throw it. Just don’t bring it in the car.”
“Really? I can throw it?”
“It’s just going to melt,” I say before I have a chance to calculate the width of two lanes of traffic and the trajectory of a snowball sent with enough aim and enough force from his taut seven-year-old arm, that it can, and does, splat a white slushy across the door of a Honda four young men have just exited. It has barely missed one of their heads.
“Hey!” yells the tallest one as eight eyes fix themselves on Zach. They know it was Zach because he is laughing. I feel flush. Where are my superpowers now? We’ve left Krypton, but still I feel weak.
The light changes and the road is instantly filled with taxis that block the men in both directions.
“In the car!” I yell and Zach just repeats my name as we scramble with doors and seatbelts. The car stutters, then churns to start and I press hard on the gas. Your old stupid car jerks a little, but then we are free. Two of the men in my rearview are pitching white orbs to the sky. One hits our roof with a whack, the other our hood, but I make turn after turn until I know we’ve escaped. I want to scream at Zach, but all that comes out is laughter, so hard I’m crying.
“That was close!” Zach keeps saying. No chance he is going back to sleep.
“Where are we going again?” he says as we get on the Manhattan Bridge. Zach’s nose is pressed to the window to look at the buildings, lit up and suspended in fog behind us.
“Brooklyn,” I say and his attention’s on me again.
“Grimaldi’s!?” His vocabulary grows like weeds and Grimaldi’s is one of those Brooklyn words he knows. Not Stuyvesant or Flatbush yet, not even the old Dodgers, but he knows Grimaldi’s on 19 Old Fulton Street. He can even tell you, in detail, what a pre-war brick oven has to do with the quality of the crust. I love this little man.
“Grimaldi’s is closed, bucko. We’re going to my dad’s place.”
“Your dad is dead.”
“He had a funeral.” He says the word funeral so perfectly it turns my stomach.
“You were there but you probably don’t remember,” I say.
“Yes I do! I had to play with Kevin, but he couldn’t go in the pool. I wanted to go in the pool. It was hot.” He picks at the peeling leather of his door handle.
Vibrating over these steel bridge grates never fails to remind me of you. Here is the stench of your Marlboros, the acrid smell of burnt sugar in the coffee I’m stuck holding for you because Marge always spills it. Here is Marge and I stifling a case of the giggles each of the Sunday mornings you drove us to Chinatown for dim sum and fake purse shopping, using us to impress a long line of sad women. Riding the Manhattan Bridge is like riding perfection, something hoisted and sustained by wire, stone and steel, by thousands of ironworkers and engineers, but our trips across it is always too brief.
This is also the first time I’ve driven this way into Brooklyn—from Manhattan and not the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—since the last time I saw you alive.
I hadn’t planned on seeing you at all, you know. It was a Saturday in late June. I’d dropped Gary and Zach off at the Botanical Gardens, not far from your house, but I’d driven back to Manhattan to see on a friend at NYU Hospital. I expected that to eat up all my time before we headed to Yankee Stadium for the game, but my friend had already checked out and I had time to kill. Rolling back over those metal grates to Brooklyn, I smelled the same dim sum, the same cheap perfume you bought your lady friends on Canal Street. Those sounds and smells and the fact that I hadn’t even spoken to you yet about David Wells pitching a perfect game, all conspired to make me visit you.
I knew enough to stop at Lucky’s first to buy you scotch. The man behind the glass stopped watching soccer long enough to see in my face some resemblance to you, staring longer than it took to run my credit card. He probably sold you the stash Marge and I found in your pantry. The recognition in his eyes made me queasy. I know you only left your house long enough to float in and out of Lucky’s, Key Food and the bank, like you were the neighborhood ghost, haunting all the places you had been the day of the tragedy.
I climbed each step of your narrow brick townhouse, noticing dead weeds in the cracks, shriveled but never removed. I rang the doorbell and through a break in the curtains your shadow lurched and grew. After a long minute, you opened the door a crack before sitting back down. My eyes had to adjust to the room. Only your muted cough placed you where you were sitting between heaps of newspapers on the couch.
You coughed again, louder, and I saw two circles of light where your glasses sat. You mumbled, “Fix us a drink”, shifting your weight to one side and knocking over a stack of papers as you fetched inside your jacket for tobacco and a lighter. You were there in the flesh. I’ve tried so many ways to hate you, to unforgive all the ways you hurt us. But you made it hard to muster much hatred for you that day.
When I leaned over to get at the curtains, your firm, familiar hand clutched my shirt.
“Keep ‘em closed, Mikey, and fix us a drink.”
“Okay,” I said. “But I’m turning on something.”
On my way to the kitchen, I pulled the chain on the lamp atop the old upright, and the light buzzed in its green frame. In your cluttered living room, I was unable to see it as it once had been, with the large picture window lit up from our crisp December spruce and Marge stabbing carols into the keys. We’d always been the worst Jews on the block, trading Christmas presents because it reminded you of mom. But all that was gone. Now there was just you, teetering on the edge of the couch as precariously as your newspaper clippings.
I rinsed two highball glasses, sensing a quiet sterility to your kitchen. Few odors lingered except coffee grounds and lemon soap. Perhaps an infestation of mice or roaches had prompted things to be bleached and sprayed, cracks caulked and holes stuffed with high-grade steel wool. I thought your kitchen had been singled out to remain ageless, a panic room where light never penetrated enough to fade the wallpaper and there would always be canned food.
“I left a message,” I lied, handing you a glass and clearing a place to sit.
“I said scotch,” you growled and there it was, the old familiar bark.
“This is soda watah,” you said, slipping into your old Brooklyn accent. You drank it down anyway and jangled your ice at me. I poured you a second, less soda and less ice.
“They’d install cameras to watch me all day if they could. Don’t think that fucker across the street hasn’t thought about it. He shoots at me, you know. For fun, he shoots up my back lawn. I seen him do it.”
“You call the cops?”
“They don’t care. They talk to that sheister over there, but they don’t do a goddamn thing. I talked to one of them, but they all think I’m incompetent. I’m not incompetent. It’s them that come in here and climb over my fence and shoot up my lawn.”
You took a long gulp of your scotch. It calmed you.
“Marge know you’re here?”
“No,” I said. Then you pointed your mottled, withering hand at me as though ringing an imaginary doorbell.
“Why you got a Yankees cap on your head?”
“Why not?” I’d forgotten I was wearing it.
“You don’t like baseball.”
“I like it enough. Gary and I are taking Zach to the game today.”
“Oh. David Wells is pitching, you know. Don’t expect that fat fuck to give you the pleasure this evening. Lightning don’t strike twice.”
I caught sight of the framed newspaper clipping by the door, the one of Sandy Koufax.
“Koufax had a couple games where he did that.”
“No hitters, Michael! He had three no hitters, but only one perfect game. Only one.”
I expected you to list the usual details. The summer of 1965. Palm trees at the grove by Olvera Street downtown. Killing time before the game. You and Aunt Wendy sitting cross-legged and enjoying the mariachi band, feeling the sweet sting of horchata on your fillings. Crossing Echo Park in the blue Thunderbird and making your way to Dodger Stadium. You always took us through the double header play-by-play, building up to that eerie quiet in the final innings. The Dodger Dogs and beer ate away at your stomach and you were so nervous for Koufax you thought you’d throw up. You loved to imitate Vince Scully’s nasally pitch as he called the final out:
Swing on and missed! A perfect game! On the scoreboard in right field it is 9:46PM in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California, and a crowd of twenty-nine thousand and one-hundred thirty nine just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no-run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he capped it: on his fourth no-hitter, he made it a perfect game!
That is what I expect from you, reliving that game, getting worked up as you describe the Dodgers rush Koufax on the mound, after you and every other fan stood and clapped for a lifetime. You and your sister float like pinwheels to the car and drive Sunset all the way to the ocean. You wade into the Pacific and tell Wendy your dream to move your pregnant wife and daughter out West. You gulp the Santa Ana winds blowing down the bluff, you say you wish your family could be stuck in a box and shipped there overnight. You’re so in love, you ship California back to Brooklyn. You buy loads of oranges and lemons, coconut tanning oils and a special skin cream Wendy told you all the actresses used. You ship it East in large crates that arrive for days after you are back.
But you and mom never made it West. You and mom and little Marge ate up as much as you could, watching most of it spoil. Mom had me and not long after, she left us. I know it was only too easy for the California dream to burrow itself into you while you were there. I know that now. It was perfection to you, every smell, every piece of fruit, even the baseball.
From that same spot on your couch, you’d told me that story a million times, growing from quiet to angry to tears in a matter of minutes. But I realized then, in your silence, that the fire within was running out of oxygen. The structure was toppling in on its embers. It was always so easy to fight with you and yet I didn’t have it in me anymore with you like that.
“You bringing them by, I suppose?” you asked, staring at a spot of sun on the carpet as though the consonants you’d lost could be found there.
“No,” I said, “Not since Thanksgiving.” You had never liked any of my boyfriends, least of all Gary and his son. When I was younger, I’d still bring them to you. I liked rubbing it in your face. I liked being the man you couldn’t cross the street from. And I always stuck around so you could drink me under the table and say the vile things that had been on your mind—Bryan was an AIDS fucker because he worked on Broadway, Jay was a faggot cop, and Marco, well, Marco was a twofer: the wetback queen.
Gary and Zach have gotten off easy I have to admit.
“They’re not coming here,” I said, as if to make sure I believed it. But I couldn’t help what came out of my mouth next. “I’ve got the car,” I said. “We can drive over to the park, if you’d like. There’s plenty of time before the game.”
You shifted in your seat. You considered it.
“No, Michael,” he said, so softly I barely heard it. “You go and have fun at the game.”
“Are you sure? What do you want?” I asked, feeling like I’d never asked you that.
“I don’t want anything.” Your coughing ramped up, fiercer than ever. I realized you did want something. You wanted me to leave. You wanted me to keep Gary and Zach away from you, from whatever poison caused you to spray the drive and bleach the counters, whatever vermin made you stuff the walls with steel wool.
I got up and opened the front door, waiting for you to say something else. I stared again at the little framed newspaper photo of Koufax you have hanging on the strip of wall by the door. He is young, mid-career, winding up for a fast pitch in faded yellow newsprint. Why you tortured yourself with that memory I’ll never know.
You didn’t say a word. I walked back over to you and kissed your scaly forehead. One simple peck. You looked up at me, staring into my eyes which are the same as yours. You squeezed my arm so Indian-burn tight, I winced. Than at last you balked and your grip loosened forever.
Zach sighs deeply as I pull off the Prospect Expressway.
“Just a little further,” I say.
“What did you forget there?”
“I’m not sure anymore.”
The snow has picked up a bit and the streets have accumulated more snow than those in Manhattan, much more than the roads back home when we left.
“Which house is it?” he asks. The brick row houses on Howard Place look identical, save for the details that are hard to see in the dark.
“Third on the right,” I say, then “the one with the lights still on.”
Standing on the porch, we can see Marge through the window. She sits cross-legged by the fireplace, blazing up one Village Voice after another. Her eye makeup is streaked down to her cheeks, which are pink and swollen. She is still your daughter, still my pudgy punk mess of a sister.
I grab Zach’s hand and slip the key in the door, startling Marge.
“Michael!” she says, trying to get up, but falling further backward instead. I see a large emerald bottle that’s rolled into the corner.
“What are you doing? Wow! You really chopped off your hair. I was only joking, Michael. Jesus, you look like—oh, hi Zachary.”
Zach says “Hi” under his breath. Whatever energy he’s had tonight, it’s been sucked out by the fire and the sight of Marge. His face pushes into my side.
“You came all the way here with him?” she says, bracing herself to stand again.
“Did you find the box? What is it?”
“It’s in the kitchen, just as the man said. Left box in kitchen!” She says this like she’s a cavewoman.
I whisper to Zach, “Go sit by the fire and warm up, okay?”
“I want to go with you.”
“Sit by the fire and don’t touch anything. We’re not staying long.”
“I can see you’re cold. I’m cold, too. Just sit there for a second and we’ll go soon.”
The empty room seems large with nothing but Zach in it, but he sits by the fire and holds his hands up the way he thinks you’re supposed to, rubbing them a little against each other and then up to the warm grate.
Marge takes me by the arm and waltzes me to the kitchen. She flips on the bare bulb.
I don’t believe what you’ve left us. We have seen and tripped over this crate hundreds of times. We have stood on it, leveraged it for newspaper as we wrapped your kitchenware for Goodwill. We never pried it open. We never let ourselves dwell on its contents. Of course we knew its branded logo by heart: a sun setting over distant hills and the cursive Santa Barbara, CA etched on its side. We knew its dimensions—two feet square at the base and fourteen inches tall—because that had been part of your story, too, the maximum size that would fit inside the coat closet of the plane. You fought with the stewardess about it and won because no one brought coats to California. We knew the crate’s contents—four large bottles of champagne—and we knew why they’d been saved. One bottle was to be broken on the prow of the Buick when you set off for California, the second to be drunk when your feet touched the Pacific again. The last two were for us, uncorked when Marge and I each turned twenty-one. But that legend had died a long time ago.
There is no table in your kitchen—no island either. Since the countertops are too narrow, the crate sits awkwardly on the floor, its packing hay, stale and strong, strewn every which way.
“The big reveal!” Marge says, “Stick that in your plot and smoke it!”
“We gave that away!”
“I didn’t,” Marge says with a shrug. “I thought you did.”
There is something else she’s found and hasn’t said. She is a horrible liar. Feeling dizzy—how long since I’ve eaten anything?—I grab the doorframe and look behind me. Zach stares back, but doesn’t say anything. The emerald bottle lying on its side catches a reflection of the fire. Your daughter has already chugged clean through the first one. But what else is there?
I breathe in deeply and move toward the crate. I prop up one of the last three bottles. It’s dusty and dirty, glowing green where my damp fingers touch it. I run my hand across its face to see the label. The words are mostly French, cuvee this and fleur that, but the address in Santa Barbara is clear, as is the vintage.
“I think it’s a sign,” Marge says. “He wants us to find her, to find out what happened. He kept it because he kept hope.” Another one of your storms lands ashore in her eyes. I realize Marge hasn’t found anything else, no note, no secret stash of photographs. There isn’t anything else. This crate alone is going to send her down the rabbit hole. Me, too, if I let it.
I palm the bottle and feel its weight. I will take just one with me. I will wash it off and open it with Gary when he gets home, but we’ll make no ceremony for you. I won’t take that journey the way Marge will. This is all you’ve left us and I realize you were right. Zach must get far away from here.
I turn to find my son, but he’s already standing right behind me. I collide with him and all the energy in my bones releases itself. The bottle slips from my hands and shatters wildly at our feet. The sound pops our ears so all that’s left is the hiss of bubbles burrowing into floorboards.
“Fuck,” I yell, trying to grab Zach and keep him from stumbling.
Zach freezes, eyes wide. “Don’t move,” I say, but he can’t help it. He takes a step backward to get away and slips on a large piece of glass, falling backward and landing hard on the floor.
“Oweeeeeeeeeeeee!” he screams. I sit him up, checking his back, his butt, everywhere for blood, for signs that somehow your house got him and got him good. There are no gashes, no wounds, only scrapes raised up in rows on his arms that match the floor’s unpolished, splintery wood.
We take a deep breath together, Zach and I. I brush glass from his pajamas. He stifles his sobs, rubs his fist against his eyes and doesn’t protest when I kiss his head. I lift him up and sit him on the counter next to the sink. Marge is there in the room, but I pretend she’s not and Zach tries not to look at her because she scares him. The pipes clang and specks of brown water spurt out, until finally there’s a steady stream clear enough to wash Zach’s arm.
“It hurts, Michael,” he says, his attention on his arm now, on me.
“I know, bucko. Let’s go outside and get some snow for that.”
He nods and wraps his arms around my neck. I carry him past a stunned and silent Marge, past the rooms that smell like they’re vomiting champagne.
Marge follows us to the porch. Does she think I’m going to hurt him? I stand him up against the railing and gently hold a little snow to the reddest strips of his forearm. He flinches at the cold and then giggles.
“It’s not so bad,” she slurs. “We’ll wrap it up and you’ll be asleep before you know it.”
I tear my thin t-shirt off into two strips. The frigid air races up my sweaty back, making my teeth chatter, but I don’t care. I cup some snow and twist it into one of the strips and have Zach hold it against his arm. We shiver together, but he looks up and smiles. It’s as close to a perfect game as I’m going to get.
“There, see?” Marge says, leaning against the bay window and lighting a cigarette. “Uncle Michael made it all better.”
I bristle at the word uncle and stare at my sister, your daughter, wishing I could reach down her throat and wrench your ugly word from her lips.
“I gotta go,” I say, picking Zach up for the last time and carrying him to the car. The wind bites at my arms, my neck. I have never been so cold.
“He’s fine, Michael. Don’t freak out. Just stay with me a little while!” Marge shouts back then, seeming to remember something, hops back inside the house. I put Zach back inside Jor-El’s space pod, setting our course for anywhere beyond this dying planet. He pulls the blanket up over his head. I rub his hair and close his door. I look at your house for the last time. Marge stands on the porch, holding one of the two remaining bottles up at me.
“Take it!” she howls into the otherwise peaceful Brooklyn night. She double-steps it down the porch and up the drive. I shake my head and hurry into the Bug. I know the way this fox likes her game hens. Marge is at my window and I crack it open just enough to hear.
“Take the bottle,” Marge says.
“I don’t want it.”
“It’s a sign, Michael. You’ve got to take it—”
“You go and look for whatever you need, Marge. We’re leaving.” What I mean is that I’m leaving to California, with Gary and Zach, but I don’t say that because I have never said it out loud. It is that fragile. It is an ancient bone I’m dusting off, something so small and delicate that Marge, like you, would be only too happy to stomp on it.
“We’re moving to California,” I say, but Marge doesn’t hear over the engine and I don’t repeat it. But Zach has heard me.
“I’m sorry, Zach,” she shouts, pressing her lips to the cracked window, “I hope you feel better.” Then she steps back as I pull out. I don’t look to see what she does.
My teeth are still chattering when we pull into the empty Key Food parking lot, a block from the onramp.
“Does it still hurt?” I ask, looking back at him.
He shrugs. I want to believe he is thinking about California, like I am.
“You have two choices. We go see a doctor now or we go home.”
He looks at his arm. There is no sign of my shirt with the snow in it, just the scratches beaded with a little blood. “Home,” he says.
When we’re back on the expressway, he pokes my side with his foot.
“You’re skinnier than dad,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Your dad’s a pipsqueak.”
“Rodney’s older brother is really tall. He plays basketball. Did you ever play basketball?”
“No way,” I say, laughing.
He’s laughing, too. He sounds like Gary, with those low dorky guffaws. On our careful ride home, Zach never falls asleep. He talks and talks, never asking for his Gameboy or his Pokemon cards. When he unbuckles and climbs to the front seat, I don’t tell him no. He asks me about every sport he can think of and when he finally gets to baseball, I don’t think at all before telling him about the perfect game. I explain 27 up and 27 down. I tell him how out of all the tens of thousands of games since baseball was invented, that there have been only a dozen perfect games. I tell a quick version of your story, Dad, about the perfect game in ’65, about Sandy Koufax. I build up to the final inning, saying just what Vin Scully said when he called it, that the mound at Dodger Stadium right then was the loneliest place in the world.
Zach ponders this a minute. “I like that story,” he says.
At Gary’s house, the driveway’s thick with snow and the electric garage door won’t budge. I park sideways into a bank of snow. Zach lets himself out and runs through the snow to the porch. Inside, to our relief, the house is still warm. Zach races upstairs.
“You need to change your clothes,” I call after him, making it slowly up the steps.
“Are we really moving to California?” he shouts from his room.
“Yes!” I shout back, smiling that the idea has taken root.
“You and me and Dad?”
“You and me and Dad.”
"Just How I Left You" originally appeared in Issue 1 of Plenitude Magazine in the Fall of 2012
Copyright (c) 2012 by Stacy Brewster : : All Rights Reserved