I finally went home again after many years to attend the funeral of my wife’s mother. The service wasn’t until the next day, and after a few well-timed excuses I found myself with the entire afternoon to walk alone. The sky was warm and bright and there were several places I wanted to visit in my hometown: Grant Elementary school on 7th avenue, Marathon Park by the river, and others that were warmly coated in the charms and memories of a past not often seen. I walked softly and around every corner I expected to meet someone I knew.
But there was one place in particular that I saved till the end. And as I walked towards that place across the bridge that divided my home town into East and West, I grew more anxious and pictures formed in my head of what was, for me, maybe the most important place of my early teenager years.
On a corner downtown, beside a flower shop with a wooden bench outside, stood The Mint diner. An historic brown stone building. Famous baseball players and jazz singers who I’d never heard, had their black and white faces glued to the wall. The booths were made from that red non-leather material that cracks and spits out yellow stuffing on hot summer days. Across from the booths was the green topped counter. It had five low backless stools that spun around and around and only one wicker basket of condiments: bottles of red ketchup, yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish, and thick horseradish in a jar with a small wooden spoon. Throughout The Mint there was a constant fog of bacony, oniony, greasy smells; burnt grease; tables had greasy corners; the glass door bore the slap of greasy fingers; and the greasy faced cook named Leonard hovered about his sizzling iron grill like a thick white stork watching over its nest of eggs. Leonard was a proud round man with a diverse collection of spatulas. ‘From ’round the world’ he’d call out if anyone asked, which no one ever did. But he tossed it into conversations, like a dash of black peppercorn: ‘from ’round the world,’ he’d sing and hold up the bruised utensil with quiet, sacred dignity.
And there was always a conversation.
Florence Poladski, the cashier with swooping blond curls and red rimmed glasses and white sweaters over her naked shoulders, shared everything with every customer. Even if she’d never laid eyes on them before. She mostly spoke of her sister Ruth who had moved to Mexico with a Canadian: ‘What? She can’t pick up a pen? She’s too good for me now?” she’d say, and then add in a low, conspiratorial whisper, “They’re not even married.” To which the customer, with his wallet wide open, was forced to nod and frown convincingly in sympathy if he wished to get his back any change.
Beside the cash register was a wide bamboo bowl of round peppermint candies. These were meant for the patrons but Olive was the main consumer and the only full-time waitress. Olive Zimmerman. She wore white nurses shoes that she kept spotless by spitting on her thumb and rubbing, and she laughed at everything and anything. Olive had a great laugh. I generally didn’t like people’s laughs. It’s like they were faking it. Or forcing it. Maybe I just thought that because I had met Olive early on in life and she had spoiled every laugh there after: she was the bench mark that no other could meet.
And of course there were the regulars: Harold the accountant who ate only liver and onions; Mr. and Mrs. Lewinson who owned the flower shop next door; the Gorner twins who wore matching pink dresses and shared onion rings with mustard; Max the taxi guy; Shirley Tinders who had chronic sinusitis and sat by herself with boxes of tissues and read only romance novels; and then there was Charlotte.
Charlotte Manzini. Beautiful, wonderful, exotic, charming, goofy Ms. Charlotte M. I fell in love with her the moment she walked into The Mint.
That’s where I first saw her, soaking wet. That’s where would meet and tell our life stories over cherry cokes. Our first kiss was in one of the booths. And our last good-bye was waved through the large glass window.
Some things are just too wonderful to forget and at the same time so sad to remember.
I walked third street towards the mall downtown, past a few hair salons and a record shop, and stopped when I saw the wooden bench outside. There were buckets of pink carnations on the seat. And the green metal awning over the door just a few steps further on was still there. Ghosts that were in my head materialized; I tasted strawberry milkshakes again and maple syrup soaked bacon; I heard music and felt a fog of greasy warmth on my face. Each step forward pulled me deeper, closer to something that had been so far away for so long. And as I passed the pink carnations and the dark shop window, I saw a reflection not of myself dressed in a suit coat and trousers for a funeral, but instead of a boy in a t-shirt and dirty jeans and careless, silly grin.
The Mint was gone.
Rubber boots and fishing poles and plastic ducks were in its place. The front door read Mathews & Sons Sporting Goods. I stopped. Numb and confused. The taped up signs for live worms, and trout nets, and camouflage vests seemed obscene. A kid, probably one of the sons, opened the door, “You need help, mister?” He had red spots on his cheeks and closely cut wavy hair and held the door with his shoulder. A strong odor of earth and something sour, chemical like, wafted out from the inside. My knees felt weak and watery.
“No. No,” I said but too softly to be heard.
Through the downtown streets I wandered. I still now can’t recall how long I walked, but it seemed like decades.
I stopped at an unknown restaurant, and walked in. At a table by the window, the waitress, a girl with green hair and a nose ring and very pretty smile, brought me coffee with sugar. It took some effort to pour the sugar and lift the spoon, and it hurt to stir, and the music from the speakers in the ceiling hurt, and the view out the window of a children’s clothing store hurt. And I thought of leaving, but everything hurt so I stayed and kept my eyes down, focused on the dark, unwanted coffee.
By chance or by serendipity, my wife walked into the restaurant with her sister. They were both dressed in black and came to my table. They explained how they had needed to get away from the family, their family, and not think about the thousands of details surrounding a funeral, and how their father was pretending to be much stronger than he really was for everyone else. I felt guilty for having left early, but my wife assured me there was nothing I could have helped with, and I only would have felt awkward with so many people around pretending to be so busy and strong. Her sister ordered green tea and asked what I had seen in my journey down memory lane. My wife agreed and welcomed any distraction. She had been dreading the trip, and the funeral, and seeing her mother in a coffin and dreaded all the emotions that were to come and could not be ignored; and she had confessed the night before, just as we fell asleep, that she was happy that her mother’s pain was over and then she cried silently into my shoulder.
I described the elementary school and how the playground had changed, and the park where I had stolen a bicycle but had then returned it an hour later, and the corner candy shops, but it all felt empty. The stories had no glue to me now. No charm.
So we sat, the three of us in black, looking through the window at early evening shadows.
“Can I tell you something? I mean tell you a story,” I said to them both. “I think I have to tell it or I might explode.”
They both nodded and my wife took my hand and asked If I was OK. And I told her I would be, not now, but that I would be if I could just tell this one thing, even though it might be a bit awkward for her to hear.
“It’s about my first love,” I said.
Her sister was very excited and ordered a sandwich and fries when the waitress returned, and my wife smiled and even laughed a bit, the first time in weeks, and said, “God, please. Anything that is about life and not death.”
I took a sip of coffee which was by then cold and leaned forward. The two sisters leaned in also and the restaurant around us dissolved away, and like three children around a campfire, we forgot the shadows of the forest around us.
It was a grey, rainy afternoon. Cars splashed through puddles. Sharp winds attacked umbrellas. And all the shops downtown had their lights on so that the street looked like Christmas though it was only September. Donny and I sat at the counter with our mugs of hot chocolate. School had finished early because of teacher meetings and we had taken a city bus to the mall, but were quickly bored with the same comic books and water fountains and orange carpets, so we ran the three blocks to the Mint. Olive had given us some clean aprons to dry our faces and hair which made Leonard upset because he had just ironed them himself that morning. He thought we were skipping classes even though I assured him it was only a half day. Plus, Leonard didn’t approve of Donny. Few adults did.
Donny wore only denim jackets with rock band names on the back, and he had long blond hair that covered his eyes, and even though we were only in 9th grade, he already had the first black roots of a beard on his chin. And he slouched a lot. And looked too angry for a 15 year old. But Olive liked him. She loudly complemented his ‘golden mane.’ “I’m so jealous of your hair,” she’d say. “Maybe we can swap scalps sometime,” she’d say and then release her wonderful laugh. Florence thought he was 20-something and shared the same gossip with him as with the adults, and even winked at him once. Which made Donny a bit embarrassed and red in the cheeks. So Leonard left Donny alone for the most part. Besides, they all knew he was my friend, well, the only friend my age, and that Donny and I both had divorced parents.
We were sat at the counter with our mugs of steaming hot chocolate. The AM radio by the grill was on and played an old song about marriage being a trap. Olive cleaned her shoes. Florence hummed to herself by the register and watched umbrellas bounce by the window. And as always, Shirley Tinders, completely unaware of a world around her, had her red, stuffy nose deep in a romance novel: the cover displayed a bare-chested cowboy, a blond woman with a torn white dress, and a black stallion stood up on its back legs, kicking at the starry, prairie night sky. Donny had nudged me and pointed at the cover. He giggled, and then I giggled though I wasn’t sure why – Donny looked at that cover a lot longer than me until Shirley sneezed and he swiveled back around in his stool.
The front door opened. A sharp blast of cold wet air invaded The Mint, swirled about, and upon its invisible shoulders bore a disheveled, miserable creature: a mop of tangled black hair; white bare legs; a short summer dress, once yellow, was caked with chunky patches of brown wet mud.
No one moved. Not even the creature – which stood dripping, anchored to the rubber floor mat. It had no visible mouth. Or eyes. Only by the slightest movement of its belly, could I tell it was crying.
Olive was first. She ran to the thing and wiped back clumps of black hair. “You poor dear, you! What happened? You’re soaked to the bone! Lenny, bring me some more aprons,” said Olive.
Florence assisted by grabbing a fist full of paper napkins from a dispenser. With their heads bent like concentrated archeologists, the two women, side by side, commenced work: bit by bit they excavated shoulders, and neck, and wiped mud off elbows, and water from a chin, and hair from over eyes. Until, at last, the body of a girl materialized.
She had a wonderful smile. And big cat eyes: blue as blue seashells. And a soft acorn shaped chin that curved upward whenever she laughed or cried. And she had braces and brown glasses and butterfly earrings, but I don’t remember those very well. Mostly her smile.
Leonard put an order of French fries in oil. And Florence donated her emergency sweater: a green woolen cardigan that blanketed the girl from chin to knees. Olive sat her in a booth with a mug of hot chocolate – that was my idea – and she slid in next to the girl in a protective way, but not overbearing, and said,” Now, how did a pretty little thing like yourself end up in a gin joint like this?”
I hopped off my stool to join the audience forming around the mystery guest. Leonard brought the warm salted fries on a plate with a bottle of ketchup and stood behind Florence and me seated opposite Olive and the girl. Even Shirley poked a red nose out from over her book and raised a thick suspicious eyebrow. Only Donny kept his distance by the counter.
Her name was Charlotte. Charlotte Manzini: 15 years old, had moved from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was shopping with her father, became separated in the storm, then lost, was chased by some boys but she didn’t know why or who – Donny asked her what they looked like but Leonard told Charlotte not to answer that – she had run, she had been splashed by a truck, the boys had laughed, and she had escaped through the closest open door.
“The Mint. That’s the name of this place, dear. Opened in 1953,” said Florence. “Still the original owner too. But they’re retired now. Florida.”
“Do you know where your father might be? He must be desperate,” said Olive.
She shook her head. “We were last together at a book store. Something with an ‘L’, I think. Lankers?”
“Lawkee’s Book Emporium? A yellow giraffe with glasses on the door?” said Laurence.
“That’s five blocks from here!” said Florence. “My word.”
What happened next could have been due to naivety, or childishness; but was probably a clumsy attempt at flirting though I didn’t know it then. As Charlotte Manzini ate French fries three at a time with extra salt, and wore that gigantic green cardigan, and blinked her seashell blue eyes, and answered Olive’s questions one by one, I had become weak. My stomach tickled from the inside out. My thoughts were slow, behind those of the others, and my responses out of synch. I said, much too loudly, and without any voluntary control over my words, the following: “How could anyone get so lost in this dumpy little town?”
From his round stool at the counter Donny let out a loud laugh.
“Anywhere new can be confusing,” said Leonard. “Especially in a storm. And when you’re being bullied by strangers. Of all people you should know that.”
I wished I’d had Donny’s blonde hair to cover my eyes. I wished no one could see how hot my face felt.
Charlotte silently squeezed circles of ketchup onto her empty white plate.
“I’ll go,” said Donny.
“Where?” said Florence.
“I’ll go find her dad. What’s he look like Charlotte?” he said.
There was some debate about telephoning. Florence said old man Lawkee was mostly deaf and never answered the phone. Olive thought everyone should wait for the storm to stop. Leonard wanted to get a policeman. Then Mr. and Mrs. Lewinson came in from the flower shop next door and the whole story was retold and the debate started over. And I, feeling terribly small, desired nothing less than to disappear into a cloud of pitiful self-loathing nothingness. Or crawl into the booth beside Shirley and hide behind one of her books forever and ever.
That evening mom came home late and I hadn’t made dinner. We lived in a small one bedroom, in the upstairs of an old house. A narrow wooden staircase led directly into the kitchen and the kitchen window overlooked a weathered garage roof and maple tree, and lanes of other houses and garages and more roofs spread out until the horizon gave way to hills and storm clouds beyond. I was at our kitchen table with a glass of lemonade and an algebra book, which was quickly opened after hearing mom’s footsteps on the stairs.
“What a day. Did you feed Marvin?!” said mom. That’s what she always said when she came home and threw her purse on a chair. “I swear Mr. Wiggin is trying to kill me with these extra hours.. Nice to have the extra money, though. My toes are soaked. What a storm. Maybe this summer we could go visit your sister. And fly like real people. You didn’t make the macaroni and cheese? I left the box out and circled the directions in red. Never mind, I’m not really that hungry anyways. The girls raided the vending machine. We got three free sandwiches after Judith kicked it a few times. Thank god security didn’t hear. What you studying? Algebra! God, I don’t envy you. Math was never my thing. How’s your friend, Donny? My god I’m tired.”
She poured herself some red wine from a bottle in the fridge and held the glass with only two fingers and Marvin sprang out from the bedroom door with a long ‘meow’ and rubbed his sides against her shoeless feet and purred contentedly. I sometimes envied Marvin. His life seemed so simple. Free of guilt. Free of embarrassment.
“What about we order pepperoni pizza tonight?” she said. “Go crazy. What the heck. We deserve a treat too. Right, Marvin. Marvin agrees! It’s decided. Pepperoni pizza from Bill’s. Will you call, honey?”
The rain had started again and the pizza was a bit cold when it finally arrived but mom didn’t care and ate her first slice standing up by the kitchen sink. Some red sauce dripped onto the floor, but Marvin quickly licked it up.
“Mom,” I said.
“This deserves another glass of wine. You want a little glass of your own? I won’t tell if you don’t.”
A lot of habits were hard for her to break after the divorce. Some she just gave up on trying to give up. Like the “I won’t tell if you don’t tell” habit. That’s what she used to say when dad and Julie lived with us. Julie, my sister, was eight years older than me, and didn’t really care what anyone did. She had moved out West years ago for college and a boy named Kevin. Dad wasn’t strict. He didn’t yell. Or lose his temper at me. At Julie yes. They used to fight a lot. I think mom wanted to be closer to me by saying things like ‘I won’t tell if you don’t” or maybe she just wanted someone on her side. But now that dad was gone, and Julie, it seemed sad her saying it: as if there were a third invisible person, a ghostly presence watching over both of us.
“Mom,” I said. ” How did you know you wanted to be with dad? I mean. Was it love at first sight? Did he ask you out?”
The rain fell against the dark windows. And mom stared up at the ceiling for awhile. She told me about how Frank, my dad, had wavy black hair and worked at a car wash for extra money. They were still in high school then: he was a senior, she was junior. Frank’s father had a red Mustang Corvette and on the weekends Frank was allowed to drive it for a few hours. And then she went on about some friends I’d never heard of, cafes that no longer existed, and dance songs that weren’t popular anymore.
“But how did you know you liked him? Or that he liked you?” I said. “Were there fireworks? Stars? Little birds flying around?”
She smiled and sat down beside me and combed my hair back with her fingers. She was a pretty woman and I imagined she was even prettier when dad first saw her.
“The same way everyone does, I guess,” she said softly. “You just know. It’s so real. And there’s not a person in the world that could change your mind or make you feel any different. Why?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Of course, mine didn’t end too well. So what do I know?” she said and laughed and took another slice of pizza from the open box on the table. “Maybe love is being afraid, but letting it happen anyways.”
We spent the rest of the evening in front of the television, watching a nature program about desert animals that can live for months and months without water. Mom fell asleep first; Marvin was curled up on her lap. The rain had slowed to a soft drizzle. And the wind was quiet.
I thought for a long time about Charlotte Manzini’s little acorn shaped chin, her wet hair, and yellow dress, before finally, reluctantly, closing my eyes too.
Donny phoned me the next morning and said to meet in Marathon park at 11:15 by the swimming pool gates. I found him there with his long hair pulled back in a rubber band and smoking a cigarette. He had a relaxed, almost merry mood about him: watching two squirrels chase each other through the pine trees. It was a nice September afternoon: warm, but cool, with sweet dark earthy smells in the air. I sat down on the ground beside Donny and spun a pine cone on its head. He told me that the other day, at the Mint, he had asked Charlotte what the boys who chased her looked like, how they talked, what they were wearing, etc. Apparently I had missed that. I was pretty upset. Donny had asked around and found out that on Saturdays they played basketball at Marathon park.
“Why do you care so much?” I said. “You don’t even know her.”
“And?” he said.
“So your plan is to walk over there, knock their teeth out, and go home?”
“Pretty much,” said Donny.
“Five. Six, maybe.”
“Two against six?”
Donny knelt down beside me and spit out a loose piece of tobacco. “My brother Mike’s coming. And he’s bringing a guy. Works with him at the car shop. A nut case, but tough as sin. Mike calls him The Wrench. Dropped out of school two years ago or something.”
I threw my pine cone into the empty swimming pool.
“Come on,” said Donny. “They’ll probably just run away one they see us.”
I put up my fists out of instinct.” Protect the face,” I thought. “Protect the brain.”
“Come on!” said the boy. He circled around with quick steps. He was big, much bigger: wide shouldered like a bear. Probably a senior. He had a red scar on his chin. “Come on turdface. Swing!” he said and danced about like a real boxer.
Behind me I could hear the others: Donny, Donny’s brother Mike, and Mike’s friend Wrench. Punches. Kicks. Yells. A shoe flew over head. I wanted to throw up. Not since fourth grade had I fought anyone, and even then I’d lost.
Crack. White light filled the sky. My left eye went dark. “You like that turdface? You started this. But I’m gonna finish it,” said the bear. Pain spread across my left cheek in cold spider web like waves. The trees spun in circles.
The bear was right. We had started this. Well, Donny did. But I had let him. It was my own fault. And Charlotte Manzini’s too. But not really.
The next punch landed in my right side. The ribs. All breath left me. My lungs turned to cement. I gasped for air and fell to one knee against the basketball court. I was going to die. A moment – a memory – from my past flashed into my head: dad had taken me fishing once and I remembered how the fish, a small mouth bass, had suffocated to death on my hook. He was proud of the catch. And slapped me on the back and gave me a swig of his beer by our campfire. The stars were white and small in the black summer sky.
Someone lifted me. Someone picked me up under my arms. “Run, you idiot,” said a voice. The feet below my knees felt weightless. And my legs stumbled along, bouncing like a plane on a runway that couldn’t find flight. A Led Zeppelin patch danced in front me, and Donny’s blond hair in a pony tail. High whining noises were everywhere. Like giant angry bees. My ears hurt. One eye hurt. And my ribs burned with every little mouthful of air.
“Don’t argue, Mike! I’m faster. Just go,” said Donny.
“Don’t get caught. Meet us at Wrench’s,” said Mike. Led Zeppelin disappeared and Mike carried me off into the pine trees. The shade felt good. I wanted to stop and lie down and breath, but Mike kept pushing forward.
“My brother better not get busted because of you,” said Mike. “One more and they’ll throw him in juvi. Move!”
I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want Donny to be busted. I just wanted to breath and see and have control over my legs.
Wrench helped Mike, and now they both carried me forward. “That was awesome, man!” said Wrench. “That ugly kid in the green shirt wasn’t even moving. I knocked him out cold, man!”
The shade of trees gave way to sunlight and we ran towards a chain link fence that bordered Marathon Park. A long cut had been made some time ago and the fence was bent up at an angle with use. Mike pushed me through first. I rolled on my back. Police sirens were behind us, inside the park.
Wrench was next and then Mike whose right hand was swollen so he crawled on his elbows.
The three of us stopped on the sidewalk outside Marathon park. Air entered my lungs and it was wonderful to breathe again. With my one good eye I saw Wrench take a comb out of his back jean pocket: his nose was bleeding and he wiped it with his t-shirt. Mike knelt on one knee and looked at the pink swollen knuckles on his hand. He was wearing only one shoe.
“Where’s Donny?” Wrench said and combed back his brown hair.
Across the street from us were rows of homes with porches and cars in the driveways and children playing in the front yards with balloons and squirt guns. It was Saturday and families were barbequing and the street smelled of charcoal and buttered corn.
Mike said nothing. He stood up, and began walking away.
“What’s up with him? We won didn’t we?” said Wrench. I shrugged and followed after Mike. “But we won.”
Later that evening Wrench drove me home in his rusty blue pickup. The radio was broken and we didn’t have much to say. The windows were down and warm orange and red waves of color filled the sky and the last white sliver of sun shown between the trees and buildings. We had stayed at Wrench’s place for some hours, till his girlfriend got home from work. She took one look at Mike and me and started screaming. She was a large woman and her voice carried through the entire apartment building. Wrench yelled back at first but then gave up. Mike and I had to go.
Wrench stopped the truck in front of my place. “Don’t forget the story. What Mike told you,” he said.
“I won’t,” I said and opened the door.
“Hey, Donny’s going to be alright. He’s a tough kid. OK?”
I nodded and walked around back to the stairs that led up to the kitchen. The kitchen was empty but the TV was on in the living room.
“Mom?” I said.
“In here,” she said. “with Aunt Gale. Come and join us. That game show we like is on.”
Gale Kowalski was my mom’s older sister. She was a nurse at a retirement home and I just knew she was going to freak out when she saw me. Maybe even more than mom.
“In a minute,” I said and went into the bathroom. I locked the door and stood before the mirror. My left eye looked like a big blue grapefruit. With some effort I could see out of it, but everything was blurry and watery.
“Hurry up,” Gale said. “They’re about to spin the wheel.”
I combed my hair and brushed my teeth and even flossed a little, thinking that somehow it might help. I straightened my shirt and tried to smile naturally at my gruesome reflection. “Hi guys,” I said to the monster in the mirror. “What’s new, Gale and Mom? Me? Oh, just a gang fight in the park, you know. Nothing special. Just your usual Saturday of broken bones and spilt blood. Chased by the Police. Donny’s in jail. Might have to spend a few months in Juvenile Detention. His brother Mike blames me. And this guy named Wrench, his girlfriend threatened to turn me in if she ever saw my face again. So, you know, nothing big. Order pizza?”
Then I imagined Donny in a cell. But the only jails I’d ever seen were from movies, so in my imagination he was surrounded by cowboys and Italian gangsters. What would Donny’s father say? His parents had divorced just a few years ago too; well, not actually divorced. His mom went to a bar one night with some friends and never came back. So they weren’t legally divorced. But it was easier for Donny to say they were rather than having to tell the whole story again and again. I never met his mom. His dad I knew; kind of. Though was never home. But he usually left some money for Donny under the microwave. Mike had moved out a few months ago, as soon as he had turned seventeen. Donny mostly slept at Mike’s place. Except when one of Mike’s girlfriends stayed over. I wondered if their father would even notice that Donny was gone.
I combed my hair once more and unlocked the bathroom door. I walked through the kitchen, forced a smile back onto my face, and entered the living room.
Their screams could have probably been heard on the moon.
I stayed home from school the whole next week. Mom took a few days off too but that just meant we were both bored, so she went back to work on Wednesday. I watched a lot of daytime TV but that only made me more miserable. I felt trapped, being stuck at home, even more than at school. My eye had gotten better, but I still looked too horrible for normal human interaction. Mom had listened to my story, about how a guy jumped me on the street down town and wanted my wallet but I had said no, and then he cracked me in the eye and ran off. She was only suspicious when I described what he looked like: I kept changing the color of his hair for some reason. And luckily Gale’s nursing instincts were more powerful than her Aunt-ing instincts, so she took care of my eye first. She told me how to keep the swelling down and that I should be fine, but if I got dizzy we had to rush to the hospital immediately.
Mike came by Thursday morning. Legally he wasn’t allowed to drive a car, but he parked Wrench’s truck out front and left it running. I met him outside on the front grass. A red haired girl sat in the passenger seat.
“Donny’s alright,” he said and we walked a little, away from the girl. “His trial is in a few days. The place they got him in now has TV and a pinball machine and even ping-pong. Crazy, man. I think he’s actually gained weight, too.” Mike laughed, mostly to himself. He looked more pale and hadn’t shaved in a long time. There was a bandage wrapped around his right hand.
“Your mom buy the story?” he said and his face turned dark and serious. “Because Donny’s taking the wrap for this whole stupid thing and you better not make it any worse.”
I tried to tell him I was sorry, and that it wasn’t my idea and that I had never wanted to fight anyone. Ever.
“Just shut up and listen,” said Mike.”I didn’t come here to argue with you. As far as I am concerned you owe Donny one. We all do. Including Wrench.” It was then that I noticed how much Mike had changed in just a few days. His eyes moved constantly, rapidly, attempting to take in and be aware of everything around him at once. And how thin he looked; weak. “You need to go and see him. At Juvi. Visiting hours are between 12:30 and 2. Go see him,” he said. I nodded. “When?” he said. I told him tomorrow. “Today. Go see him today,” he said and grabbed my shoulder. He pulled me in close to his face; he smelled of beer and cigarettes. “You owe him. Nobody deserts a friend. Today.”
“OK,” I said.
“Yes. Mike. Today,” I said.
He pushed me away and walked back to Wrench’s truck. The back tires spun and patches of green grass were thrown into the street behind. The red haired girl smiled and waved goodbye.
I went upstairs to get dressed.
They had cut his hair. His face did look fatter, the cheeks did at least; and there were no cowboys or Italian gangsters and we both sat in this air conditioned visiting room with a camera on the ceiling. His right hand was in a cast and was marked up all over with names and rock band symbols.
At first he told me about some of the other kids he’d met and what they’d done to get in and how he was the youngest one in the whole place. That made him laugh. “Who would have thought I was such an over achiever,” he said.
I told him about Mike not looking so well.
“Yeah,” he said. “He’s taking this harder than me.”
We sat for awhile but it felt awkward. Donny picked at the edges of his cast and looked up at the clock on the wall. Only five minutes left for visiting hours. There was a lot I wanted to ask him and say. I wanted to apologize and scream and tell him he could just have Charlotte Manzini if he wanted her so bad. But all the words were stuck in my throat. And I remembered again the time I went fishing with my dad. And how we had sat around the campfire and cooked the dead fish. I knew then there was something wrong between him and mom. I felt it but I couldn’t actually put it to words. I guess I was afraid that if those words came out, there would be no way to take them back and that the answers to my questions would end everything. No more fishing. No more starry nights by the campfire. No more dad or home or anything.
“Donny,” I said. “Why did you want to fight those guys?”
He shrugged and moved his head downwards in a way that used to make the hair fall forward and cover his eyes.
“Is it because of Charlotte?” I said, and when I did my stomach hurt.
A policeman with a gun on his hip walked through the room without looking at us. He walked past, through a door with a glass window, and we were alone again.
Donny stood up as if to leave, but then sat down again. His face was red and he scratched at the outside of his cast.
“When my mom left,” he said, “it was with some guy she’d never met before. A stranger. Just no one, man. I don’t even think she knew his name. Just ‘wham’. See you! And that was it. That’s the part that really got me the most. A complete stranger, you know. I mean, how can you do that? How does someone do that?”
I’d never heard Donny talk like that about his mom. Usually he made a joke or avoided the subject or said nothing. His face was red and his one good hand was clenched in a fist against his knee.
“I don’t know,” he continued. “Mike took it hard too. I know he blames himself, and sometimes me too. It’s not like we were little angels or anything. And now he keeps trying to replace mom by taking care of me. I think that’s why my being in here is harder on him. I tried to tell him it wasn’t his fault, but he wouldn’t listen. I don’t know, man. Guess my dad will find out sooner or later, too. ”
Another police man opened the door and told me I had only one minute left.
“I’m sorry,” I said, mostly because it was the only thing I could think of to say.
“Don’t be,” said Donny. “What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that when I saw how you acted around that girl at The Mint…” but he didn’t finish.
“So you don’t like her?” I said.
Donny let out a loud, deep laugh. “No, you idiot,” he said. “Why is my only friend such a complete idiot,” he said and laughed again. It was such an honest laugh that I had to laugh to, though I wasn’t sure what we were laughing about.
From his pocket he took out a white business card and handed it to me. It read “Anthony Manzini, Chiropractor. Family Health Care” and there was an address and phone number.
“I’m going to be in here for awhile, probably. Won’t know for how long until the judge decides. My lawyer said at least 3 months. So, you might as well have someone else help you get into trouble.”
The door opened again and the policeman said I had to leave and sign out. Donny stood up.
“Come and visit me,” said Donny.” You can even bring your new girlfriend, if she can stomach that ugly black eye of yours. Maybe she can teach you how to box or something,” he said and smiled and then walked out the door and back into a large room. Through the glass window I could see a pinball machine and ping-pong table. There were a lot of boys in the room, and they greeted Donny when he returned.
The policeman helped me sign out and I walked outside into the September sun and never saw Donny again.
A few weeks later mom announced that we were moving. Julie was pregnant and her wedding was to be a small quick wedding with just family and a few friends. Mom went on and on about being a family again and how the schools were better out there and how she already had some phone interviews for jobs. We fought a lot after she told me. Not because I didn’t want to see Julie, or be an uncle or anything like that; in fact it was really good to see my mom so excited and happy. She knew why I didn’t want to move, but kept promising me that I was young and that the girls out West were even prettier.
Charlotte and I met at The Mint every day after I told her I was moving. She really was great. And Leonard always made us an extra large portion of fries. And Olive gave use free refills on milkshakes. And Florence reserved a booth for us even though reservations weren’t allowed; she had folded a piece of paper in half and written on one side “Reserved. VIP only”. We had spent most of the previous weeks just getting through all our stories: her mom was a children’s book author and her dad was a doctor, and she told me about her cousins and grandparents back home and how one of her uncles was in jail for stealing cars – she had remembered this after I told her about Donny. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about the fight at Marathon Park, Mike had made me swear, but I knew I could trust Charlotte. And she told me her secrets too, like when she had stolen a stuffed animal from a game booth at a state fair some years ago and had lied to her parents about winning it.
When the day finally came for us to leave the moving truck pulled up outside. The movers all wore brown overalls and brown baseball hats and they carried our taped up boxes down the stairs into the street while mom was busy labeling and packing the last few items. I put on my coat to meet Charlotte one last time. Outside the sky was grey and cold and the leaves on the trees had changed into orange and red.
She was already in our booth. She was wearing the same yellow dress she had when I first saw her. The diner was packed; there was a jazz concert in town that night and a lot of people had driven in from all over the state. There wasn’t much left to say. We had told each other everything a dozen times over already: how we’d miss each other, how we’d write all the time, how I’d come back to visit. But of course none of that had helped me feel any better. My stomach hurt and my chest felt a giant rock was standing on it. So we just sat, on the same side of the booth and held hands under the table. Olive brought us a milkshake without asking, even though she was busy with all her other customers. “Don’t worry, there’s always time for you two. The others can just eat napkins for all I care,” she said and laughed and then hurried off to take an order. Outside the diner a few rain drops began to fall. Long watery lines curled down the window. And the wind blew, and Charlotte held my hand under the table as customers came and went. Part of me wished the rain would turn into a storm, a hurricane, and destroy the moving truck so that I could have one more day. And I think she thought that too, because the harder the rain fell, the tighter she held my hand. Leonard came over and personally delivered our last order of fries; it had extra ketchup. He was covered in grease stains and sweat from the grill. I could tell he was upset by my leaving. But he just said, “The place won’t be the same without you two,” and then went back to work.
It happened so quickly and naturally, that I didn’t have time to be scared. Of course I had thought about it. A lot. Especially the last few days. Every time I saw he little acorn shaped chin. or her butterfly earrings I thought about it. I had thought about how it could be romantic. Maybe in the rain, like in the movies. Or how I would take her in my arms and pull her against me. But in the end, just as we said our hundredth ‘I’ll miss you’, and I moved to stand up and put my coat on, she took my face in her hands and kissed me. Softly. And she tasted like warm soft strawberries.
I waved to her from outside, in the rain and wind, with my jacket over my head. And she smiled and cried and waved back. Florence was beside her, with one arm around Charlotte’s shoulders, and she waved too. And then Olive. And then Leonard with his spatula from somewhere ’round the world held high in a salute. They all stood for a moment and waved from behind the glass window.
And then I ran home. The moving truck was already packed and waiting.
My wife’s sister was the first to speak. “Oh my god,” she said.”That’s so sad.”
The day had turned to evening and downtown had that warm purple glow that comes just before the streetlights turn on. Our cups and plates were empty and the waitress had brought us our bill some time ago. I sat back in my chair and watched the people outside. Two boys in matching football shirts walked by. They were both talking at the same time and smiling and waving their hands.
My wife played with her napkin. Her eyes were wet, as if she were about to cry.
“I’m sorry, ” I said. “Guess it wasn’t much of a feel good story.”
We paid and left. My wife was quiet and her sister walked ahead by herself. We were still all dressed in black, and then I remembered the funeral was tomorrow. I held my wife’s hand. Under the street lights that had blinked and then glowed orange, we walked past the dark shop windows.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me that story before?” she said.
I shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”
“Did you ever see any of them again?” she said.
We walked the rest of the way to her parent’s house in silence. A few friends of her father’s still sat in the living room. They were drinking whisky and talking. But mostly they just watched the TV. A baseball game was on and it was the 9th inning. My wife’s father knew most everyone in town. I guess that’s how I met Linda, my wife. We had met at work. And once we found out we were from the same hometown, we went out on a date. And then another. Her father helped her get the job. And even helped her move when she got promoted. He was a very likable man. And tough as sin.
I excused myself from the baseball game and went up to Linda’s old bedroom. Our unopened bags were in the corner. They had remodeled the room into a guest bedroom after she moved out, but had kept photos of her as little girl on the walls. One of them was in Marathon Park at the swimming pool. She was smiling, with wet hair, and two teeth missing. On the desk was a phone book. I sat down and opened it and paged through the names.
“Unbelievable,” I said.” Still there.”
I picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hello,” said a voice.
“Hello,” I said. “This is Tim. Tim Whiting”
“Tim?” said the voice. “God. How are you?”
“I’m OK. I’m OK. How have you been, Donny? Did you know The Mint is gone?”