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[a short story told anonymously in two parts]
“Every true story ends in death.” [Ernest Hemingway]
This is not a true story, but some parts really happened. That’s why I don’t want you to know who I am.
I will reveal, however, that when I was nine, I bothered my brother Freddie and his two teenager friends while they listened to a Bill Haley and the Comets record in the basement. I jumped up and down like a monkey in front of them until Freddie punched me in the stomach to get me to leave them alone. He was seven years older, a guard on the varsity football team, all hyped up on Pepsi and potato chips, and he didn’t hold back. He hit me so hard I fell backwards and whacked my back on the basement’s grimy, tiled floor. The pain started right above my navel and spread to my whole midsection, and although I really wanted to, I couldn’t cry because for twenty seconds I couldn’t even breathe. The tears were there, and they wanted to come out, but they remained stuck behind my pupils and burned the back of my eyes.
“Get the hell out of here, Kevin,” Freddie demanded.
When I could finally breathe again, it was like a gift, like I’d just been rescued from drowning. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my middle, hoping to peel away the pain. I couldn’t.
My brother still stood over me. Staring at me. In fact, they all stared at me. Probably wondering if one punch was enough. Freddie’s linemen friends laughed, jostling each other with their elbows – a gesture I’d seen before, like when they’d see Raquel Welch or Nancy Sinatra on television. They’d be like check that out, and now they thought it funny the way I fell, how one punch in the gut made that happen – Freddie’s stupid, little brother squatting on the floor and wheezing like an old man in a hospital bed. My brother laughed along with them.
That’s when I finally cried. I pushed myself off my butt and crawled toward the stairs while Freddie and his football buddies watched. One of them, Jimmy Delany, even prodded me toward the steps with his foot on my butt. That made them laugh even harder.
“I’m telling Mom,” I shrieked as I stumbled up the stairs, the kitchen only ten steps away. I’d be safe there. Mom would become my instrument of revenge.
Freddie knew – and his friends knew – he was in trouble. Like grounded forever trouble. Like never having friends inside the house again trouble. Maybe Dad would even whip him with his belt . . . and let me watch him do it. Jimmy Delany, my brother’s best friend, said, “Oh, shit, Freddie. Your brother is going to punk you out.”
He was right. I just needed to get to the kitchen before they could grab me and haul me back into the basement. They could threaten me, I realized. Maybe hit me again. I had to live with my brother, didn’t I? But right then, I didn’t care about that. My stomach hurt too much. Tears clouded my eyes.
Okay, some of that didn’t happen.
Actually, Freddie and his football friends were listening to Roy Orbison, and Jimmy Delany, not my brother, punched me. Plus, I didn’t cry until Mom saw me. I was too shocked to cry. Why hadn’t my brother stopped Jimmy from hitting me? Freddie had sided with his best friend, not me, his brother. And he had prodded me in the butt with his foot. How shitty is that?
When I got upstairs, Mom turned from the kitchen sink and stared open-mouthed at me, like what the hell happened? Why are you grimacing like that? Her eyebrows arched and then narrowed, telling me I didn’t have to explain what had happened downstairs. A mother’s intuition emerged. My arms were still wrapped around my sides, and my tears finally came hard, like they had a mind of their own.
Freddie must have sensed what I’d say and shouted from the basement. “It’s Kevin’s fault, Mom!”
Mom did what I hoped she’d do. She stomped to the top of the stairs and yelled at Freddie to come up. Right now! That made me feel better. The tears stopped, leaving only a cold dampness on my face. Freddie trudged up the steps, and when he reached the top of the stairs, he didn’t enter the kitchen. He just stuck his head past the basement doorway. “He was bothering us, Mom,” he explained, glowering at me. “Kevin pulled his pants down and mooned us.”
I didn’t say anything. That part was true. I did moon them. I’d seen that in a movie and thought it was funny. But Jimmy Delany shouldn’t have hit me. Freddie hadn’t tried to stop him. My own brother, dammit.
Mom didn’t listen. She ordered Jimmy and Freddie’s other big friend out of the house. I looked sideways at my brother as he apologized to Jimmy and the other guy – Kurt, I think. After the door closed a moment later, Freddie cut his eyes at me. I knew. He knew. Mom couldn’t watch us forever. We shared a bedroom.
I didn’t wait to hear Mom’s punishment for Freddie. I hustled to our bedroom and hid under my bed. He’d come searching for me of course, but even if he found me, he couldn’t hit me under the bed, could he?
Here comes a true part: I hid under his bed, figuring he wouldn’t look there, and right then, stifling my breath, I imagined myself living in my friends’ houses, growing up as one of their brothers. Their moms would pick me up from school and have a cookie or donut waiting for me at home as a treat. I’d have a different Dad, one who cheered for me at my summer baseball games. My dad never came to my baseball games. “Kevin,” he explained once, sighing. “I came once. Remember? You didn’t play until the last inning. And what if it starts raining. I hate being out in the rain.” He affectionately patted my head, took a drag off his cigarette, and gazed again at the “The Beverly Hillbillies” on the television. Granny was complaining to Jed about Jethro’s new monkey.
I’d been in my friends’ homes. I’d talked to their moms and dads. Their dads wore polo shirts and shorts and baseball caps. They vacationed in places that had boats. They always came back with t-shirts with palm trees drawn on them. I’d mentally place myself into their family pictures on their bookshelves – I’m smiling along with them, one arm frozen in mid-wave.
Instead, I lived with Freddie, Mom, and Dad in a house alone on a cul-de-sac in New Albany, Ohio. We didn’t have neighbors yet, just an open field of weeds and dirt and gravel on either side of our house. In those days, from the time I attended elementary school through high school, my father always wore a long-sleeved white shirt, a dark suit, and black shoes. Both Mom and Dad smoked before and after dinner, so Freddy and I ate our meals in the family room in front of the television, watching the news or “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Bonanza.” My teachers loved calling on me in school because I knew everything about current events. Like about President Johnson and the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights marches in Alabama, the Boston Strangler.
Now you probably think I grew up as a nerdy, lonely, middle-class kid. Maybe you feel sorry for me.
Let’s say instead that I lived on a fifty-acre farm in Kansas, miles and miles away from any neighbors. My best friend was our dog Chestnut, a Labrador who licked my cheek when I petted him. But Chestnut went missing when I was eleven. Freddie heard me sniffling that night in our bedroom as we went to sleep and explained that aliens had abducted Chestnut, and I shouldn’t worry. They’d eventually return him to us. Their spacecraft had also left those crop circles on the north fields. Dad was pissed.
I’m not very good at writing science fiction.
The truth is we lived in a quiet, Columbus, Ohio, suburb – Gahanna, not New Albany – with friendly neighbors up and down the street. Jimmy Delany and his family lived three doors down. Dad worked as an optometrist. He wore a dark jacket to work but put on a white coat at his office. Dad and Mom did smoke, but we all ate at the dinner table where Dad usually peered at our eyes, examining us to see if we squinted, like if we needed a new lens for our glasses.
I hated my glasses. I didn’t want to be called “four eyes.” Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns didn’t wear glasses. Neither did Mick Jagger. Nor Captain James T. Kirk.
Plus, most girls didn’t think boys who wore glasses were good looking. I wore my glasses at home but not at Gahanna High School. I didn’t care that without them, reading gave me headaches. I wanted Angela Spinelli to like me. To think I was handsome. We were both sophomores, and I had had a crush on her since the first week of school fresh-men year when we shared a math class. Sitting across from her in third period math, I had liked when she wore button-down shirts. Every now and then she’d turn just enough to open a space between the buttons so I could peek at her bra. The black ones were best. They made her seem mysterious.
Angela and I had talked a couple of times that first semester. We joked about Mr. Adams, our math teacher, who we called Gomez after the character in the show “The Addams Family.” We complained about the homework—both of us rolling our eyes and then laughing. Once out in the hallway when she laughed at one of my jokes, she leaned into me and her boob casually brushed my arm. Electric waves pulsed through my veins.
I desperately wanted to kiss her.
And to see her boobs. I’d heard a rumor that two other guys had already seen them. One of them, a senior, bragged he’d touched one of them. Sitting behind the senior table at lunch, I eavesdropped while he told his buddies about his date with Angela. He said her boobs – actually, he called them tits – were squishy. His buddies laughed when he said that. I bit into my ham sandwich, but he made me think of the way rotting peaches felt.
In the spring of my sophomore year I finally had my drivers’ license. And one Monday morning in May, I stopped parting my frizzy hair at the side so I’d look more like David Cassidy and Scott Baio. Although they were slim and Mom bought my pants off the husky rack at department stores, the three of us had dark hair. I couldn’t, however, make mine fall smooth and wavy like theirs did with just my comb. That morning before I left for school, I soaked my hair with water from the bathroom faucet and parted it down the middle, just like they did. The mirror showed my hair glistening in the bathroom light, like I had just surfaced from underwater at the city pool.
Those two descriptions about my frizzy hair and pudginess? They’re real. Even today I’m stocky, and my hair is wiry and thick on the sides. I hated my hair, but I refused to cut it no matter how many times Dad complained. The Beatles had long hair, and all the girls loved the Beatles.
Plus, I wanted Angela to see the new me.
Even though I had class down another hallway, I made sure to pass her that Monday morning – I knew the route she traveled every day to her classes. School posters proclaimed students should wear blue today to begin Spirit Week for the undefeated baseball team, so both of us did – Angela in a blue skirt and me in a blue sweatshirt my mom bought for me at JC Penny’s. Angela even wore a blue ribbon tied to her blonde ponytail.
I acted casual that day and gave Angela a slight wave when we were about fifteen feet away from each other. Like no big deal. Then I looked away for a moment, pretending I’d been distracted by some event in a nearby classroom. I’d seen Scott Baio do that once. You know, classic cool.
It worked. She noticed.
“Hey, Angela.” She wore a white shirt, which didn’t do much to conceal her white bra—Oh, God, does her bra have little flowers on it? Her boobs pushed at the buttons.
Smiling, she sized me up. “You’re looking sharp, Kevin.” She moved her books from one arm to the other.
“Really?” Staying cool. I gazed past her down the hall, like I was needed elsewhere. Other students weaved around us. Angela kept her eyes on me.
“Yeah.” The word kind of drawn out, the way a cheerleader would say it.
I reached into my pocket, like I just remembered I needed my car keys. I waved them in front of her, told her I just got my drivers’ license, asked if she wanted to go for a ride. You know, still being cool. Only if she wanted to, of course. No big deal if she didn’t. My mother let me drive her car to school that day. Mom didn’t go out much these days, spending most of her day at home in bed. She coughed a lot and stayed in her night gown.
Angela looked past me, her mind probably doing math, calculating the time that remained before the bell would ring and the distance she had to go to her next class. The bell would ring soon, but I didn’t care. Angela obviously did, however. She quickly turned back. “Go for a ride where?” she asked, urgency in her voice.
I froze. The keys seemed to gain weight in my hand. Yeah, like where, Kevin. “I don’t know . . . around.” Again, trying to be cool. Keeping it a mystery.
“When?” She said that right away. She even leaned into me a little. Does that mean yes?
My heart thumped. “After school?”
“Okay, I’ll meet you by the gym.” She smiled, hugged her books, and hustled away to third period.
I almost cut my next class to go wash the car. This was really going to happen. Like it was a date. My first date. With Angela Spinelli in my mom’s Buick Skylark. She would sit in the front seat and let me put my arm around her.
Last period of the day in English, Angela kept sneaking smiles at me. Once, she rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue when old Mrs. Bradley read a John Donne poem, like are you kidding me? What kind of name is John Donne? He wrote poems? That was his job?
After class, we met by the gym doors and then got into the Skylark. The warm day allowed us to drive with the windows open. First the Rolling Stones, then the Doors, then Ted Nugent played on the radio while I drove slowly to Huntington Ridge Park outside of Gahanna, trying to keep my eyes on the road instead of Angela’s bare legs. Her blue skirt inched up her thighs whenever I turned a corner.
After I parked in the lot, Angela took command. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“Sure.” Why not? The day was warm, the park nearly empty with only an old man in a flannel shirt hunched over his metal detector and two moms in sneakers pushing infants in their strollers.
Within minutes, Angela and I were holding hands and turning our chins to our shoulders to smile at each other. We laughed at each other’s stories about our parents’ crazy quirks. Her parents, she said, spoke Italian when they argued at the dinner table and wanted to curse at each other. I told her my parents prayed a lot but not to Jesus.
After walking down a dusky, gravel path through the woods, I squeezed her hand and stopped us. “There’s something I’d like to do if you’ll let me,” I said.
Angela looked up at me, still smiling, like she already knew what I was going to say. “What?”
“I’d like to kiss you.” My chest squeezed my heart, making it stop for a moment. I still held her hand. If she let me, I would finally do what David Cassidy did all the time.
Angela didn’t say anything. She just tilted her chin toward my face, closed her eyes, arched her back a little, and waited.
Isn’t this story going great so far? Angela and I are holding hands, neither of them sweaty even though the day is warm. She’s going to let me kiss her – the girl I’ve had a crush on for two years. Actually, it would be the first time I’d ever kissed a girl. I leaned down toward her waiting lips.
Except we have to back up. All the way back to the school hallway when I ran into Angela – again, by design.
She started snickering when I neared her. I heard her, but I was doing the cool thing, you know, pretending to be distracted by something going on in a nearby class-room.
“What did you do to your hair, Kevin?” she blurted.
My hair? I ran a hand through my hair like I’d seen John Travolta do on “Welcome Back, Kotter.” “Nothing, really,” I lied. I swiveled my head, desperate to see my reflection in the window of a classroom door, and when I did, I saw that my hair didn’t look slick anymore; it had dried into a mess that resembled Larry’s from “The Three Stooges.”
Angela continued to laugh, her eyes on my frizzy hair, and, gripping her books tighter to her chest, she asked, “Did you just get out of gym?” She covered her mouth with her hand to stifle her laughter. Angela was polite like that.
“Gym? Uh . . . no, I’m just . . . you know.” I pushed my hand through my hair again. Laughed with her. Gazed past her. Stayed cool. Remembered the bell would ring soon. I didn’t want to be late. Get a tardy referral. A detention.
Angela scurried away from me then, like I carried a contagious disease. She glanced back once, as if she had to confirm she actually saw my hair combed like that.
After school, I drove home as fast as I could and washed my hair like three times, trying to get the frizz out of it. I then combed it from the side again. It didn’t help. I still looked like Albert Einstein’s son.
I saw Angela at our ten-year class reunion. She’d gained a lot of weight, like sixty pounds, and married a dentist from Cleveland. He was even fatter than she was. But they smiled a lot at each other.
And I still wanted to see her boobs.
After high school I worked at a quarry drilling rocks and lived at home with Dad. Mom had divorced him two months before I graduated and decided she wanted to live in California near the Pacific Ocean. I’m telling you that because that sounds a lot better than reading that she died from smoking too many cigarettes.
When I was thirty-two, Dad retired from his optometrist practice and found out a year later he had lung cancer. A doctor told him he had a year, maybe longer, to live. He kept smoking, however, and after a month he started giving me sealed envelopes every two weeks. I’d find them on the kitchen counter when I’d come home from the quarry, and each envelope contained a letter with instructions I should follow after he died. The letter in his second envelope instructed me not to involve Freddie. He was “an idiot,” Dad wrote, and couldn’t be trusted. Freddie, he reminded me, always boasted he was the smartest child because he’d been a high school student for five years instead of four.
Two months later, Dad’s letter explained he wanted an oak coffin, not a metal one. “I don’t trust Freddie,” he told me after I read the letter. “He’ll probably dump me in the ground in a plastic garbage bag.” Then he took a long drag from his cigarette.
Another letter ordered me to bury him wearing a white shirt so his skin tone would look better. The next letter told me to take his other shirts so they didn’t go to waste. I should throw out, however, his shoes because no one should wear a dead man’s shoes. “And burn that fucking white optometrist coat,” he demanded.
Then he started updating me in a series of letters how much money he had in the bank and in his insurance policies. Those were the letters Freddie really wanted to see. Freddie at the time owned a failing hardware store in Wheeling, West Virginia and would ask about Dad’s will every time I called him to tell him about Dad’s most recent letter.
I asked Dad to just tell me what he wanted to say instead of giving me letters, but he refused, claiming that the letters would make his words live forever. “You’ve been to the library,” he explained. “All those great books? What if those authors decided just to voice their words instead of writing them down? Huh?”
I took that letter off the counter and read his apology for giving me the frizzy hair gene. He apologized in another letter for not taking us to church enough. He devoted one letter to explaining how proud he felt to sit in the stands at the Gahanna High School baseball games watching me pitch and win games. Another expressed regret that neither Freddie, I, nor he ever caught a fish when we vacationed in the Florida Keys so long ago. In one letter, he admitted his extreme guilt for punishing Freddie by whipping him with a belt after he caught Freddie and two high school football buddies drinking beer while they listened to Roy Orbison records.
After a year passed, as Dad’s health rapidly declined, he began narrating descriptive stories in his letters. They were about his life growing up on a Kansas farm: how he hid under Aunt Donna’s bed instead of his own when they played hide-and-seek, the time Uncle Jack punched him in the stomach when he was ten, how bad he felt losing his pet Labrador named Chester when the dog ran away, and the embarrassment he endured in high school where he wore glasses and the other kids called him “four eyes.”
I laughed when I read about the senior prank they pulled at his high school. All the senior football and basketball players snuck out at lunch, put on ski masks, lined up outside the cafeteria windows, and mooned everyone. His best friend, Jimmy Delany, even took a dump on the grass. Then they ran. Some teachers burst out the doors and ran after them, shouting, “I know who you are, I know who you are.”
When Dad died, I informed Freddie that I would take care of the arrangements. I made sure Dad was dressed in a white shirt, a dark suit, and black shoes inside his oak coffin. I burned his white optometrist coat at the quarry. I let the funeral home pick out the flowers and didn’t say anything when Freddie and his bartender girlfriend arrived late for the service.
I still have Dad’s letters – his stories – and read them every now and then when I want to remember him and my younger years at our home in Gahanna. The stories in his letters tell me about events I never knew before. Like the first time he kissed a girl. It happened in a park in Kansas. He admitted he was nervous, the girl pretty, a blonde with a blue ribbon in her hair. I neatly tucked that letter back into its envelope.
The letter I struggled most to read, however, is the one where he explains the grief he felt when Mom died. How her death wrenched at his body and caused him to stop caring for his own health. That’s why he kept smoking after the lung cancer diagnosis. I feel especially bad about that one. I never had the heart to remind him she was living happily in Newport Beach, California.
I know this is a sad ending, but Dad did die, and Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of course, I’m telling you all this because, although you don’t know who I am, you need to know about the life I could have had. Isn’t that why we tell stories? Aren’t our lives just a collection of stories? Maybe I should quit my job at the quarry and, like Dad did in his letters during the last years of his life, just write stories. If I don’t, how will you know what happened to me?