BY FRED BUBBERS
Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN I was a boy, my father was a pressman who worked nights at a daily newspaper on Long Island. Although he worked those unconventional hours, both he and my mother did their best to keep us on a normal schedule. He left the house at 10:30 PM, after my brother and I had been put to bed and returned home in the morning just in time to see us off to school. When my mother met us at the bus stop in the afternoon, she would always remind us that Daddy was sleeping so we should be quiet when we got home.
“Remember, Daddy is sleeping,” she would say again on the front porch, just before she opened the front door. We slipped off our shoes and stepped onto the hardwood floor in on the foyer of our house in our stocking feet. We looked up the steps and could see that the door to my parent’s bedroom was closed.
It was hard containing all my energy after a day at school. Sometimes my feet would hit the steps too hard and fast and my older brother, who was behind me, would grab my belt to pull me back to slow me down. He’d solemnly put his finger across his lips.
Quietly, we slipped into our bedroom and changed into our play clothes. Our house was small, and my brother and I had to share a small room next to my parents. He was two years older than me, so he got to sleep on the top bunk. After we had changed into our blue jeans, we went back down the hall stairs, sneakers in hand, and into the kitchen to see what snack my grandmother had prepared for us that that day.
She was a slight, stoop shouldered old woman who knitted and cooked and baked for us forever. My grandfather had died the same year my parents were married. My father was in the army at the time and there was no money and no time for my parents to find a place to live, so they had moved into my grandmother’s house in Queens. When my father shipped out to Korea, my mother kept my grandmother company and learned to cook all his favorite meals.
Now she lived with us in Port Jefferson, in a room on the first floor of our house. She shared the household chores with my mother but specialized in baking wonderful breads and pastries. My favorites were the horn-shaped puffy shells filled with whipped cream.
Sometimes we would have small little cakes with nuts and raisins that my grandmother had made that day; she called them “Yeast Cakes.” Other times it might be vegetable soup or even her special pancakes, paper thin and made only with eggs, milk, and flour, and filled with apples or peaches. While we ate our snacks at the kitchen table, my mother would ask us how school was that day. Tommy, my brother, spoke first, telling her about his math quizzes and how many runs he scored at recess. Then she turned to me.
“And how was your day today, Johnny?”
Whenever Tommy had spoken first, I always struggled to make my story sound as good as his. Tommy had always been a straight ‘A’ student. He always got placed in classes with the smarter kids. I, however, struggled along in the middle rankings. I couldn’t read as well or add and subtract as well as Tommy had at my age.
After finishing our snacks, we put on our sneakers and left the house through the back door in the kitchen. Most often, we would ride our bikes and my mother would tell my brother to bring me along with him when he rode up the street to visit his friend Mark.
“Do I have to?”
“He’s your brother,” my mother would remind him.
“Oh, all right,” he would say, hurting me with his reluctance. Then he would smile and say, “Ok squirt, I’ll race you to the corner,” and off we would go.
Mark and his family lived two blocks up the street. He had an older brother and sister, Ben and Sara, who were teenagers, and a younger sister, Miriam, who was my age. They lived in a much larger house than ours with a huge lawn in front that was perfect for playing touch football. When Ben and Sara and some of their friends were around, we played during good weather. Actually, the older kids played. Being too small to run and catch and throw with them, Miriam and I squared off at the line of scrimmage. We counted Mississippi’s until it was time for us to awkwardly wrestle each other, one of us trying to reach the quarterback, the other trying to block.
Mark’s family had a rec room in their basement. There was a ping-pong table, an old worn out couch from their grandmother’s old apartment in Brooklyn, and a portable stereo record player. It was a cabinet the size of a small suitcase and the turntable opened out and folded down from the cabinet-like a shelf. On rainy days, Mark, Tommy, Miriam and I would have ping-pong tournaments and put a stack of Ben and Sara’s Beatle records on the stereo. Miriam was a pretty good friend to me, almost as good as another boy, but whenever they played the song “She Loves You,” she would sing along and smile at me.
When Mark’s mother called them up to dinner, we knew that it was time for Tommy and me to climb aboard our bikes and head home.
Sometimes, as we road our bikes slowly home on the darkening street, Tommy would tease me about Miriam.
“Johnny’s got a girlfriend,” he would yell at the top of his lungs, for the entire world to hear.
“I do not!” I would shout back.
“Johnny and Miriam, sitting in a tree,” he would shout.
“Shut up!” I would scream and try to run my bike into his. Then he would rise on his peddles and race up the street, singing “K-I S-S-I-N-G.” I would chase after him as fast as I could, but I was always smaller than him.
Once I caught up with him just as he was putting his bike in the shed in our back yard. I slammed into him as hard as I could. Tommy fell backwards onto the grass and I flew over my handlebars. I scrambled off the tangled pile of bicycles and threw myself onto Tommy’s chest.
“Take it back,” I screamed, “Take it back!”
He laughed at me. I started flailing my arms, trying to punch him, but first he covered his face and then he grabbed my wrists.
“Take it back,” I screamed.
Just then, I felt my sweatshirt tighten and bunch up in back, as my father lifted me off Tommy.
“Stop it, both of you,” he yelled as he set me down on the ground next to Tommy. “What are you fighting about?” he asked.
I was too embarrassed to say what it was. “Nothing,” I said meekly.
“It didn’t sound like nothing,” he said sternly. “Both of you put your bicycles away and get cleaned up for dinner. And I don’t want to hear another peep out of you.”
Silently we both picked up our bicycles and wheeled them into the shed. We slowly walked across the yard to the house. It was dark and the light coming from the open kitchen window was bright, casting giant shadows behind us. The radio was on, reporting more dead in Vietnam. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” my brother whispered. “Friends?”
Through the kitchen window, I saw my mother and grandmother setting the table for dinner. My father sat at the table with his glasses on, reading the newspaper. My cheeks were burning from anger and the furious ride home. The knees of my jeans were damp from grass stains. “All right,” I muttered.
Seething, I pushed past Tommy through the door and into the light of my mother’s kitchen.