by Lou Gaglia
Two doors down from us, my cousins and I sometimes strayed from driveway tag to play the bogeyman game. We crept toward the back of the garage where sat an object with perfectly round eyes and a hard, thin jaw. I was eight or nine, and my cousin Danny was my age, and my cousin Rita was two years younger. We approached the thing, and when one of us made a sound, we all ran, crying out, “The bogeyman!” Eventually, we went back for more, looking into each other’s excited frightened faces.
I gave no thought that the thing was anything different than a real bogeyman, until I was eleven, after my grandfather died, when I had to go into that garage with my father. I saw the vice there in the back, sitting on a work bench, its silver handle sticking out on both sides, and its raised shinier knobs like staring eyes. The vice was small at the bottom, its square red metal jaw-like clamp slightly open.
“What the hell are you doing? Come over here and help me,” said my father, so I followed him to the other side of the garage to a long piece of paneling.
“Is that how you grab it?” he said. “Hold it, hold it—like this!” And he pantomimed how before he had to come all the way over to me and slide my fingers down into the right spots. I tried to lift my hands away from the wood as he slid my top hand, but he pressed down harder when I tried to pull up. A row of splinters sliced into my hand.
“Like that. Hold it right . . . there,” he said, pressing on my splintered top hand, and he glowered at me from the other side of the plank, daring me to move my hands from where he’d placed them. “Lift,” he said.
The construction at the site near the little bridge past Hoyt Street lasted for three years. The first summer, when I was twelve, Brent and Eddie, brothers one year apart who lived on Clinton Street, wanted me to take a look with them at the site and at the workers and the machines. I went with them three days in a row. The next summer, after the Fourth of July, the workers disappeared for weeks. Brent talked about hopping the fences or crawling under to play in the sand dunes and sand holes. I stalled and made an excuse. But when they asked me a second time, in front of my building, I glanced up at the third floor window and shrugged.
So I was a Mama’s boy, then, said Brent.
I was a chicken shit, they both said.
I stared at them. “Now I’m definitely not going,” I said.
“You wouldn’t go anyway,” said Eddie.
“You’re full of shit, you little Mary,” said Brent.
I stared at them and shrugged. And a week later, when I heard from the neighborhood—either the deli guy or my mother or a passing friend first, and then the neighborhood all at once—that Brent and Eddie were dead, that in the early morning the sand caved in on them and killed them, that the crew arrived later to find bicycles at the top of the caved-in sand, I didn’t say a word. I listened to the neighborhood talk and stood silent, and at night I listened to my mother crying to my father and I looked out the window.
My father seethed when he found out I didn’t go to the wake, belted me in the cheek when I answered that I wouldn’t go to the funeral either, and broke my nose with one punch when I wouldn’t answer why. My mother bent me over the sink to catch the blood and run cold water on it, and he threw open the bathroom door so that it rattled against the radiator and hollered through her crying. “His friends are dead and he only gets a little sock in the nose. Big deal. He won’t even go to their damn funerals.”
My second broken nose followed when I came home late a year later, and there was the handful of splinters after my grandfather died, and there was the open-handed belt across the cheek when I wouldn’t give for UNICEF, when Laura, my secret love in eighth grade, came around with her box. When I was younger it was my mother who pulled a belt strap out of her closet. She cornered me and whacked me with the belt buckle side. Sometimes she nailed me with the heels of shoes across my thighs, and when she couldn’t grab my arm and sting my thighs with a shoe, when I got away, she threw it. Hit or miss, I was forced to bring it back to her, only to be hit across the ass and thighs all over again after she promised she wouldn’t hit me with the brought-back shoe. She stung me too on the legs and ass with the wooden spoon used for turning gravy. It bruised skin when it hit skin, and bruised bone when it hit bone. But when I was thirteen and bigger than she was, too big and fast to catch, she said she could still use a bat on me. I laughed at her, and that’s when my father stepped in.
Laura saw my second broken nose in school and invited me home with her for the afternoon, and soon it was near dinner and her mother called up my mother to ask if I could stay. After dinner I sat with Laura in her living room, and I joked that all I needed was another whack on the other side to straighten my nose out. She didn’t laugh, though. She was in her jeans and red sweater, and her straight brown hair fell half across her face on both sides. She asked me to stay a while longer. And so I said I loved her, in my mind, while I looked back at her worried eyes. The phone rang. I smiled at her with crooked mouth and crooked nose as her mother, from the kitchen, told my mother over the phone that she’d send me home soon.
Years later, past high school days and through our twenties, Laura and I went out, then didn’t, then went out again, then didn’t for good, became only friends, then nothing after the married guy came out to play pool with us and her stupid friend Debbie. I kicked their asses in a friendly pool game, and only played alone after that, winning more than I lost, some nights. Whenever I saw her come out of her building, or when I passed her on Union Street, I only nodded, “What’s up,” nothing more. Go with your married asshole, I fumed past her, or turned my head and fumed.
“He’s Debbie’s friend,” she’d said in the pool hall between games, when he got very busy on his stupid cell phone. “He’s my coworker.”
“Married shithead,” I answered. “What’s he doing out?”
“A married guy can’t go out?”
On again, off again, I wasn’t good enough for her—and a wall went up and stayed up this time, labeling me—because we were in that neighborhood, where there were more eyes looking at me behind her eyes. There were her stupid best friend Debbie’s eyes and her mother’s eyes, and the neighborhood’s eyes. Their eyes stamped me: the guy who picked fights and almost always lost; the guy who wouldn’t go to Bobby’s and Kevin’s funerals; the guy who got mad too easy; the guy who gambled; the guy who never visited his own parents; the guy who only pumped gas; the guy who couldn’t find another girl besides her, who stuck to this one and had no hope but kept trying anyway; the guy she’d stuck by—only as a friend—all through school and adulthood; the guy she’d gone out with—only as a friend—and saw married assholes on the side. Her eyes and her mother’s eyes and the neighborhood’s eyes, school friends’ eyes and their fathers’ and mothers’ eyes, and the deli guy’s eyes, and the Italian bakery people’s eyes, and that asshole priest’s unseen eyes, behind the confessional screen—that Father O’Hara idiot who was quiet for a long time when I told him I didn’t go to the funerals because they’d called me a chicken shit, because they went and died and left the chicken shit behind—all of them, every single one of them and all their eyes could go to hell. Or let them go to heaven then, if God preferred them, because I’d probably go the other direction, but I didn’t care.
So the wall was up when I only nodded to Laura, just as high and strong as the wall that was up against that Father O’Hara idiot, who said nothing after I told him, when I stayed kneeling inside the confessional and told him what I’d done, told him what I’d done and got my head handed to me with his silent bullshit—still not saying anything for a long time until finally giving me all those bullshit Hail Marys—judging me as chicken shit, too, but I showed them all.
For months I tried so many times alone to climb the under-construction Manhattan Bridge, freezing halfway up the ladder that had been kept down, but it wasn’t until I climbed it with my new neighbor Frank and his friend Bill, that I finally did it. It was the two of them who were scared, not me this time. I was the one standing on the first construction plank waiting for them to climb that first ladder, and I was the one standing below on the last ladder giving it to baby Frank, who froze on the way down the last ladder to the redone roadway that would take us into Manhattan. He’d frozen there on the ladder, laughing into his hands that squeezed the rung, and when I told him his hot chocolate would be ready when he came down, dear, he laughed harder, but his friend Bill growled at me.
Once over the bridge, by the time we reached Canal Street, at the moment my foot stepped onto Confucius Plaza’s sidewalk, I pumped my fist. Take that all of your judging lying eyes. Take it. I pumped my fist again, and Bill gave me a hard look, but I didn’t care. There had been nothing, no adrenaline rush, not one hesitation on any of the three ladders, even after we’d had to double back when we reached that sudden drop from the new roadway to the old one. I pumped little fists then, away from Bill’s fuming face, and Frank still looked spooked as we headed to Mott Street in search of food.
It was after three in the morning when I left them and headed up to Julian’s for all-night pool, where I shot around alone except for a group of drunks at the table near the big windows, which looked down onto Fourteenth Street. Then I walked to the all-night Greek diner on Fifth Street and had a long early breakfast. I sat by the window, smiling to myself over my omelet and watching it get light outside. The waiter Sammy must have thought I was nuts for smiling, but he didn’t let on.
I let the feeling wash over me, that I had done it, and imagined stopping at Mom and Dad’s before going home, pounding on the door and yelling in Dad’s face when he opened up. “Your chicken shit son just climbed the Manhattan Bridge.” He’d have nothing to say. He couldn’t belt me because I’d block him easily now and return his belt with a belt of my own. His belting days were over. And I’d twist until broken those chapped meaty hands of his before he ever had a chance to belt my own future kids, if I ever had any.
From near the crosswalk to the Brooklyn Bridge I thought I saw that bakery woman from Chinatown’s Market Street walking through the park in the direction of the Seaport, and I turned all the way around to watch her. She had a bag hanging from her shoulder, and she walked fast. I looked at her hair and at the way she moved—and when she turned a little, that face—and I knew it was her. I had the chance, in the seconds it took me to whisper, “You’re pretty,” to catch up and say hello, but I stood there and watched (“You are pretty,” I whispered) until she was out of sight.
Sleepy from the long night, the bridge climb, the all-night pool, the long breakfast, I felt at my stubby face and blinked slowly, walking up the concrete incline of the Brooklyn bridge for home, thinking of bed and the bakery woman and her face. I was glad I hadn’t gone over to say hello with my stubby beard and red eyes. The look she would have given me, maybe . . . just another pair of eyes to tell me I was that one particular Tommy and no other Tommy. I couldn’t take another look, not one more look from anyone; and so maybe it was best that I only ordered tea from her once every while when I was in her neighborhood—clean-shaven and better dressed—so I could look into that bright face and listen to her soft-songed voice say thank you, and have her smile at me—me, a stranger—with that beautiful mouth, and with those eyes that held a just hint of promise.