Photo Credit: Brendon Horton
I put on my dark blue suit, clipped my red tie onto the collar of my white shirt and carefully slicked my hair back with Brylcreem. A long red cassock hung ironed in my closet, neatly buttoned down the front. On another hanger was the blousy white surplice that went over it. My mother had proudly purchased this altar boy uniform from the neighborhood religious store. I folded the garments over my right arm to keep them from dragging on the ground then set off down the stairs.
We lived in the first house down from the corner of a wide avenue lined with shops. A butcher in a blood-stained white apron stood outside the Bohack supermarket pulling on a cigarette. The other stores were closed on Sunday morning: Goldman’s Furniture and Appliance where we had recently purchased our first color television, the beauty parlor where my mother had her thinning hair teased and sprayed every Thursday, Dave’s 5 & 10 where we bought our school supplies and the pink Spaldeens we used for stoop ball games. The street was quiet, my classmates all in church, their presence noted by Sister Mary Clare in her blue-lined ledger book. Attendance at nine o’clock Mass was mandatory; I was excused because I was serving as an altar boy at ten-thirty.
A small boy suddenly jumped out from the doorway of the Cadet Dry Cleaners. He was about my age with dark skin and bristly black hair. Puerto Rican. He blocked my way and pulled his hand out from behind his back. “Give me all your money,” he whispered in a raspy voice. If I had been looking at his face, I might have noticed that he was smiling, but my eyes were glued to the silver barrel of the revolver pointed at my chest. I held my hands up, my altar boy outfit hanging like a flag from my arm.
“Please, don’t shoot,” I pleaded. My eyes filled with tears.
The boy looked down at the gun then turned it in his hand and held it out with the handle facing me. “It’s fake. See? I was just kidding.” He was a head shorter than I was, his clothes were ragged, his shirt stained with something yellow like an egg yolk. He looked concerned. “I’m sorry kid. I didn’t mean to scare you. Don’t tell on me.”
I was embarrassed when I realized the gun was a fake, but mostly I was relieved.
“My name’s Miguel, but you can call me Mike,” he said. He held out his hand.
I hesitated then shook quickly. “I’m Frankie.”
“That’s a nice suit you have.” The way he looked at me made me feel uncomfortable, self-conscious. “Going to church?”
“Ok, then.” He edged away from me. “See you around. And remember, don’t tell nobody, okay? I was only joking.”
The neighborhood was a haven for Italian immigrants. The men could walk to the docks where they worked loading and unloading the big ships. If a crate accidentally broke open, all my friends would arrive at school the next day with identical new sneakers or dungarees or coats. The signs in the stores, even at the Hamilton Savings Bank, were in both English and Italian.
My father’s father had come over when he was in his twenties. He worked as a huckster, selling fruit and vegetables off a horse-drawn wagon. He had done well, eventually buying the house I grew up in. He lived on the second floor—the parlor floor we called it. When my parents got married, they moved into the apartment directly above. My grandfather took great pride in his property, polishing the brass handles on the big mahogany doors at the top of the stoop, hosing down the sidewalk in front every evening, growing tomatoes and peppers in a small patch of dirt in the backyard. It was like living in a small town, everyone knew you. Our parents felt safe letting us roam the streets. Outsiders were looked on with suspicion, were questioned by the men standing outside the storefront social clubs and the candy stores. They kept track of who belonged and who didn’t.
I didn’t see Miguel again until about three weeks later. Louie Mancuso and I were playing stoop ball in my front yard when he rode up on his bicycle. He slowed to a stop beside the lamppost and stood there watching us. He looked lonely. He seemed like a nice kid but I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be friends with him. If my father saw me playing with him, there was no telling what he might do. I tried to ignore him.
“Hey kid, how ya’ doin’?” he said at last.
Louie turned to face him before I could answer. “Whadda you want?”
“Can I play?” He had a hopeful look on his face.
“No, only two can play.” That wasn’t true. Still, Miguel stayed and watched. I threw the pink rubber ball at the stoop and it hit squarely on the edge of the second step, sending it into the air on a sharp flat arc. I thought I had a hit but Louie reached up and snagged it on the fly with his left hand.
“Nice catch,” Miguel said, smiling.
Louie took a step toward him and drew back his fist. “Get lost, we don’t want no Puerto Ricans in this neighborhood.”
The smile drained from Miguel’s face. He stood up straight on the pedals of his bike and rode away, his hands pressed down on the handlebars, his legs pumping hard. I felt sorry for him but I was glad that Louie was there. He had done the right thing.
I turned the dial looking for something to watch. I flipped past The Honeymooners, Bowling for Dollars and the evening news before settling on a rerun of I Love Lucy on Channel 5. I flopped down on the sofa. It was mid-summer, the air moist and heavy even with the fan rattling in one of the front windows. I mostly watched TV, sometimes read a book. It was depressing to be sixteen, wishing the summer away so I could go back to school.
I was hoping for an evening thunderstorm, one with white flashes of lightning followed by long rolling rumbles of thunder. That might send the guys hanging out on the corner under cover for a while. They were loud, busting each other’s chops, whistling at the girls that paraded by in their halter tops and tight shorts. They wore white muscle shirts, jeans with chains extending from their belt loops to the wallets in their back pockets. I could hear them from my window every night.
“Is he gonna sit in his room like that the whole summer?” The apartment was small, a railroad flat with no real doors separating the rooms. You could hear everything, especially my father. “Don’t he have any friends?”
“Who’s he gonna have?” my mother shot back. “He had Louie until the Mancusos moved out to Staten Island. They got out while the gettin’ was good like everybody else. All that’s left is the coloreds and the spics. You want him to stay on the corner with them?”
Some Puerto Ricans and a few blacks had started to move into the neighborhood, but they were still a small minority. Most of the guys on the corner were white. The color of my skin wasn’t the problem. I was quiet, didn’t drink, declined my turn when they passed a joint around. The guys all went to the local public high school, if they went at all. My parents sent me across town to Holy Cross, an all-male Catholic school. We were required to wear dress slacks and ties, keep our hair cut above our collars. The guys on the corner called it “Homo Cross”. I was thin-skinned and would get upset; that only encouraged them. I drifted away. Now they all ignored me, except for Miguel. He had become part of that crowd, although he always seemed to stand at a bit of a distance. He dressed like they did, stood on the corner with them and drank beers wrapped in brown paper bags, took a drag on a joint when it was passed to him, but he never joined in the taunting. Sometimes he would tell them to back off.
“Don’t go startin’ in again. We ain’t movin’. Stop listening to that sister of yours, we got it good where we are.” My aunt and uncle had moved out to Staten Island a couple of years earlier, only a few blocks from the Mancusos. They had a single-family house with a garage and a small yard. Louie and my cousins rode a yellow bus to school instead of the subway. My mother was feeling isolated, left behind, just like me.
“Yeah, I know. The house is all paid off and that’s all you wanna know. You don’t care how the rest of us feel.”
My father inherited the house when my grandfather passed away. I was in second grade. I knew something was wrong when my father was waiting to pick me up from school that day. We rode home in his car, even though we lived only five blocks away. He was silent the entire way. When we stepped into the living room, Father Joseph was sitting on the sofa. He stood and walked toward me, a thin smile on his face. He placed his hands on my shoulders; they were warm, reassuring. His voice was strong, authoritative. “Frankie, I know this is hard for you to understand, but Pop is in heaven now.” We recited the Lord’s Prayer together, then he pushed me gently toward my mother.
I had seen this episode of Lucy before. The Ricardos and the Mertzes were on a cross-country car trip and had gotten stuck for the night at a small motel somewhere in the Midwest. Their room was beside a railroad track and, every time a train went by, the room would light up and their beds would slide across the floor like they were on wheels. I used to think it was funny. The TV flickered once then did a slow fade, the picture contracting from the edges of the screen until it dissolved in a little blue circle at the center.
“It’s a blackout!” I heard someone yell down in the street.
My mother lit some candles as it got darker and we both stood at the window looking down at the street which was black except for the occasional beam of a flashlight bouncing off the pavement. It was strange to see all the stores closed, even the Bohack and the liquor store which were usually open until at least nine. Then we heard the sound of shattering glass, followed by cheering. I leaned out the window and looked down the street. Some of the kids had broken into the liquor store and were walking out with bottles and cases of booze. Miguel stood on the sidewalk empty-handed, looking down the street in one direction then the other.
Suddenly the street was full of people, adults as well as kids wheeling carts full of groceries out of the Bohack, carrying armchairs and sofas out the front door of Goldman’s, smashing windows at random as they moved in a wave toward the next corner. Miguel turned and slowly followed, almost half a block behind the crowd. I thought I smelled smoke, like a pack of firecrackers had just gone off. Then I saw a flicker of orange inside Goldman’s. It disappeared briefly but soon we could see four or five low flames burning behind what was left of the windows.
“Angelo, get over here,” my mother yelled. “They started a fire in Goldman’s.”
My father was in the kitchen brewing his evening cup of coffee in the glow from the gas burners on the stove. By the time he got to the window, a cascade of orange light had climbed the walls inside Goldman’s and burned through to the roof. Sparks shot into the air like bottle rockets. We saw our reflections in our front windows, ghostly against the background of billowing flames.
We heard sirens in the distance, then saw the glare of headlights wash the street. The vibration from the air horns on the hook and ladder shook the room, rattling the glass. The urgent flash of the red beacons on the roof of the trucks pulsed off our walls. I could see fear in my parents’ eyes.
“That’s it,” my father said grimly. “We gotta move.” He turned and walked slowly back toward the kitchen.
In spite of the chaos down in the street, I felt hope for the first time in a long while. Maybe this was my ticket out.
We never moved. My father talked to a real estate agent, the one my aunt and uncle had used. He went to look at a few houses but there was always a problem: the basement was damp, the furnace made a funny noise, the neighbor’s dog stood in the front yard and barked the whole time they were there. His heart wasn’t in it. “This place is all I know,” I heard him confess to my mother. She didn’t push.
I was starting my sophomore year at Fordham when my mother got sick. Cancer. The treatments took her hair and her strength, the pain sapped her spirit. My father sat by quietly in grim denial. It was a month before graduation when she insisted that she be brought home from the hospital so she could die in her own bed. The neighborhood decayed in much the same way, blight spreading block by block like raging cancer cells, rows of houses succumbing one by one to arson, neglect, fear.
Stores started going out of business. Before long, the liquor store was all that was left, a silver mesh grate guarding the plate glass window even during the day. Drug houses sprung up. Ragged men huddled on the corner on winter nights passing a bottle, crowded around a trash barrel fire. I began to visit only in daylight. One night someone broke into the vacant ground floor apartment. My father told me how he ran downstairs in his slippers, one of my old baseball bats in his hand, and chased them away. I told him he was lucky he wasn’t killed. I begged him to move out to New Jersey. There was a nice apartment complex near our house.
“What would I do all the way out there? I got no driver’s license, remember?”
“It’s a block away from the village. You know, where all the little shops and restaurants are. We had coffee there when you came last Christmas. You can get most of what you need on the little main street and we can take you wherever else you need to go. You can see the girls more often.” My father was sour and prickly with everyone else, but in the presence of my two daughters he exuded a softness I had never witnessed before. He sat on the floor with them and played Parcheesi, squeezed onto a tiny plastic stool and pretended to sip tea out of a miniature pink plastic cup, acted like a dull troublesome third grader in their imaginary school room.
“I’d be a burden. I don’t want to be a burden to nobody.”
“You won’t be a burden.”
“Your mother died in that bedroom. You expect me to leave?” He looked at me with that flinty grimace that always signaled that the conversation was over. That house really was all he knew. He had moved in when he was fourteen and, except for a three-year stint in the Army, had been there ever since. “Besides, I got a plan.”
The plan involved Miguel. He had stayed in the neighborhood all these years, drifting from job to job, apartment to apartment. My father knew he was out of work and had no place to stay, so he made a bargain, letting him stay rent-free in the vacant parlor floor apartment where my grandfather once lived. Miguel’s cousin was one of the leaders of the Diablos, the gang that controlled the neighborhood. They protected the neighborhood in much the same way that the men outside the storefront social clubs did when I was young. I didn’t realize until much later that the clubs were fronts for gambling rings run by the mob, that there were poker games and slot machines in the back rooms. As long as Miguel lived in my father’s house, the Diablos wouldn’t touch the place, wouldn’t let anyone else touch it either.
I always tried to visit on my father’s birthday. Sarah and Melanie were teenagers now and busy with soccer and dance lessons and boys, so I came alone. I picked up some cannoli from his favorite pastry shop and parked across the street from his house in front of a building that had been abandoned and boarded up years ago. To my surprise, the sheet metal covering the doors and windows had been peeled back and there was work going on inside, the dusty front room illuminated by the glare of a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. I could hear the rhythmic sound of nails being pounded into drywall, the whining of a circular saw.
I crossed the street with the little white box of pastries in my hand. Miguel was sitting at the top of the stoop in a white and green striped lawn chair. He shook my hand, gave me a half-hug.
“The old man has been waiting for you all day. He wants his cannoli.”
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s okay. Tough old fucker that he is.”
Miguel had grown heavy, his neck thick and his face jowly. His hair was still full and bristly but was dusted with streaks of grey. He was respectful to my father, innocent and big hearted in a way that was almost childlike. Their relationship had started as sort of a benevolent protection racket but evolved into something much deeper. Miguel ran errands for my father, took the trash barrels to the curb twice a week, shoveled the steps and sidewalk in the winter. I called one night and they were having coffee, listening to the Yankees game on the radio.
As Miguel and I were talking, two young men carried a large mounted canvas down the street. They wore torn faded jeans, T-shirts splattered with paint, colorful high-topped sneakers. One wore his long hair tied back in a blue bandana.
“What’s going on?” I nodded toward the two men who were now trying to wedge the canvas into the back of an old van.
“The artists are moving in. Pretty soon we’ll be just like Tribeca.”
“That’s a good thing, no?” Artists were the new urban pioneers, seeking out and resurrecting forgotten, downtrodden corners of the city
“I guess it is, until guys like me can’t afford it no more.”
I had never quite thought of it in those terms.
“Hey, go and see your father. He’s waiting.”
The call came from Miguel. It was a Sunday morning, just before noon. His voice was shaking. “Frankie. He’s gone.”
I didn’t understand at first. I had just seen my father two weeks earlier; nothing seemed amiss.
Miguel took a deep gulp of air. “I didn’t see him yesterday and didn’t hear him walking around this morning, so I took my key and went up to check. He musta passed in his sleep.”
Miguel was standing in the front yard when I got there, pacing back and forth. He wrapped me in a long, uncomfortably tight hug. He reeked of perspiration; there was the yeasty scent of alcohol on his breath; tears dropped softly on my shoulder. “He was a good man, Frankie. I’m gonna miss him.”
I envied him in a way, wishing I could express the same depth of emotion, but all I felt was numb.
Miguel waited in the dining room as I walked toward the bedroom at front of the house. The room had the texture of a sepia-toned photograph, uneven shafts of brown light filtering through the blinds. My father looked like he was sleeping, lying on his back under the sheets, his jaw clenched, a few days worth of bristly white stubble on his chin. His skin was already cold.
Miguel accompanied me to the funeral parlor to make the arrangements, sat through the calling hours, came to the cemetery. The extended family had dwindled, aunts and uncles passing away, cousins dispersing to other states, all of us too busy to stay connected. There were only ten of us standing in a tight cluster as the priest said a last blessing at the grave site.
“What are you going to do about Miguel?” my wife asked as we drove back to my father’s house.
“I don’t know.” I had thought about it often. The artists had indeed transformed the neighborhood. It started slowly at first, abandoned buildings being reclaimed for studio space. Gradually apartment buildings were restored, businesses followed: a vegetarian restaurant, then a yoga studio, a secondhand clothing store. The neighborhood became trendy; young professionals moved in. When the rents began to rise, the artists moved on, starting the cycle again in another part of the city.
“You don’t want to be a landlord, you know that.” My wife was an attorney, could be coldly logical at times.
“I could hire someone to manage the place.”
She looked at me skeptically.
“I don’t know, I feel like I owe him. He did all the things I should have done, but didn’t. I could give him a lease for a few years, with no rent, then put it on the market.”
“That would depress the sale price, if it didn’t turn buyers off entirely. We’ve got the girls’ college to think about.”
“We can take out loans,” Melanie said cheerfully from the back seat.
“You can’t just put him out on the street,” Sarah added.
I tried to talk to my father about Miguel once but didn’t get very far. He was from the old school, believed you should never discuss money with your kids.
“What, I shouldn’t be charging him no rent?” he said.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying.” My father had always misunderstood me. He wasn’t a good listener; maybe I wasn’t a good communicator.
“What I do with my house is my business, understand? When I’m gone it’s yours, then you can do with it what you damn well please.”
We never spoke about it again.
My father had always kept his papers in a series of brown accordion folders stored on the top shelf of a bedroom closet. I looked when we got back to his apartment and found them right where I expected. My wife and daughters boxed up his clothes for Goodwill while I sifted through years of tax returns, utility bills, cancelled checks. He saved everything. I came across a yellowed, wrinkled document with words printed in a formal font on stiff legal-length paper. It was the mortgage my grandfather signed when he bought the house in 1934. The note was for $7,435.
My father never told me whether he had a will, but there it was in a crisp white envelope with the words David Greenberg, Attorney and Counselor at Law embossed in sober black letters in the upper left-hand corner. The will contained a bequest to “Miguel Ramos, my dear and trusted friend.” The words were legal boilerplate, written by Mr. Greenberg; my father would never express himself that way. The bequest was in the amount of two thousand dollars. Everything else was left to me.
There was another sheet of paper in the envelope, a page torn out of a spiral notebook. A few lines were written on the back side of the page in my father’s meticulous, slanted cursive:
About Miguel. He was good to me but I took care of him too. No rent all these years. He’s not family. I left him a few dollars in the will but that’s all he gets. I know you never wanted to have anything to do with this place, so sell it. Take the money and run. Miguel, he’ll take care of himself. He always has.
I showed my wife the letter.
She sighed. “He’s probably right, Frank.” She turned back to the clothes she was sorting.
I knocked on Miguel’s door when we were ready to go home that night. He had a beer in his hand, a string of thick black rosary beads hanging around his neck and down over the front of his ribbed white undershirt. He looked tired. Over his shoulder, I could see a pizza box on the table with its lid tipped open, two slices missing from one side of the pie.
“For now,” I responded.
“Long day, huh?”
We talked for a few minutes until we ran out of things to say.
He looked at me with sad, expectant eyes. “Ok, then,” was all he said, never changing his expression or disengaging his eyes from mine.
“We’ll talk.” I sounded so much like my father, brushing aside his obvious concern. That wasn’t what I had intended, I just didn’t know what else to say or do. Maybe it was that way for my father too.
We shook hands and I watched as he slowly pulled the door shut.
Ralph Uttaro spent his formative years in Brooklyn, New York where some of the scenes from this story, loosely speaking, may have taken place. He nows lives, works and writes in Rochester, New York. His work has recently been published in Bartleby Snopes, Blue Fifth Review, Everyday Fiction and Front Porch review. Email: ruwriting[at]gmail.com