Ralph Uttaro

Gulf Stream Park
Photo Credit: Lisa Jacobs

David Morrow stood alone on the beach. He stared out toward the horizon, an invisible point he knew existed somewhere off in the dark. He watched the faint white lines of foam at the crest of the waves, lines that widened and grew more luminous as the waves rolled closer. The breakers were relentless, pounding in his ears as they crashed against the shore. The beach was cool on his bare feet. He sat and tiny grains of sand filtered through the thin fabric of his seersucker shorts, collecting in gritty patches on his haunches.

He looked up at the red flags flapping in the wind, posted to warn that the water was closed to swimmers. The flags were attached to a white sign with tilted bold black letters on top that read: Break the Grip of the Rip. The sign gave simple, concise instructions on how to escape a rip tide. It meant nothing to David. He had never learned how to swim growing up in Manhattan.

David wasn’t an impulsive man but he had decided just the previous night to buy a ticket to West Palm Beach. He had flown in from LaGuardia that morning. His apartment had begun to feel empty and claustrophobic all at the same time. He was tired of the intrusions, the widows and divorcees in the building dropping off casseroles, pans of lasagna, pots of chicken soup. There was a naked hunger in their eyes.

He hadn’t told a soul he was leaving. Who was there to tell anyway? His son Steven lived in L.A. and communicated only sporadically, usually by text. David had a network of former business colleagues and casual acquaintances, but no one he was truly close to. Maureen had always been the constant in his life. He hadn’t really needed much else. He had been happy among his books, his classical music collection, his online chess matches.


David had been hungry when he checked in shortly after three. His room was on the concierge level and included a complimentary afternoon tea. It was September, the hotel was quiet, only one guest examining the finger sandwiches, cut vegetables, and cranberry scones arrayed on the round banquet table. She was a tall, frail woman, probably in her late seventies. She wore a powder blue pant suit with flat white loafers. A double strand of pearls was wrapped around her neck. Oversized Chanel sunglasses covered half her face.

“Everything they make here is spicy,” she said, closing one of the chafing dishes with disdain.

“Really?” David smiled.

She lifted a tumbler of scotch toward her lips, her two trembling hands steadying the glass as she sipped loudly.

“It might not be spicy to you but I have this problem with my esophagus, you see. Anything spicy affects me.”

“Oh.” David slowly circled the table, examining the offerings, trying to discourage the conversation without appearing rude.

“Just get in?”


“You with a convention?”

“No, no. I came down alone. Just want to be by myself for a bit.”

She looked David up and down, screwing up her lips. “Well, we all have our idiosyncrasies.”

David could picture Maureen rolling her eyes. They would have had a good laugh about it later. The Breakers had been a special place for them. They had spent their honeymoon here, had come back often after that, usually in April near their anniversary. The last time had been two years earlier, to celebrate David’s retirement from his law partnership. Maureen had gotten sick three months later. It had been eleven weeks since he buried her.

A middle-aged couple entered the room. The old woman accosted them. “Forget about it. Everything they make is spicy. I have this problem with my esophagus, you see. I can’t eat spice.”

David took the opportunity to slip away. At least Maureen would be spared the indignity of old age.

David walked outside to the small tiki bar at the edge of the beach. He ordered a banana daiquiri from the pretty blonde bartender. Angela, read the silver nametag on her bright yellow polo shirt. She was tall and big-boned in a way that wasn’t unattractive, sturdy athletic calves extending down under her long khaki shorts. Her shoulder-length hair curled around her face in the wind, her teeth were big and a brilliant shade of white when she smiled at him. David found himself straightening his back, puffing out his chest a little. Then he realized how pathetic that was. David went to the gym at least four times a week—weight training, cardio, even some yoga. He still had a full head of hair that was not yet completely grey. But he was old enough to be the girl’s father, maybe even her grandfather.

Even if she were closer to his age, David was sure he wouldn’t know what to do. He had never been good at opening lines. It was Maureen who had made the first move back at Oberlin. He had watched her quietly from across the room during history class, inconspicuously he thought. She had flaming red hair, a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose, vibrant green eyes. Her voice had a slight Indiana twang but her comments in class were always thoughtful, well-reasoned. He admired that. She was witty too, relaxed and outgoing in a way that he could never be. One day she walked up to him after class and asked if he wanted to buy her a cup of coffee.

David had chosen Oberlin for its academic reputation and its beautiful campus but mostly because it was in Ohio, hundreds of miles from New York. Hundreds of miles from his parents. His father was a partner at Solomon Brothers, his mother sat on the boards of three art museums. They were formal, fastidious people. They had high expectations for David.

“I had lunch with Ed Sherman today,” David overheard his father say one night. “Randy was accepted at Princeton.”

David heard his mother gasp. “Are you sure we shouldn’t have steered David more toward one of the Ivies?”

“Oberlin’s a fine school. He’ll be ok. But it does make you wonder.”

“Isn’t Ed a Princeton alum?”

“Yes, he is.”

“Does he donate?”

“No doubt he does.”

“And Ed and Marge are coming to our party next Saturday. Marge will be insufferable.”

David’s parents threw lavish dinner parties in their Lexington Avenue apartment. His mother would review the guest list with his father, would carefully construct the menu, would agonize over the seating arrangements. Rosa, a domestic they retained part-time, would be brought in for the evening. When he was younger, David would be sent to spend the night with his maternal grandparents who lived a few blocks away. His mother would describe their stately brownstone on Seventy-Eighth Street to her friends as dark, threadbare, outdated. David thought of it as a safe haven.

David’s grandfather loved chess and had achieved the rank of master. He patiently taught David the basic moves when he was four or five. He had a long ruddy face and pale blue eyes that were perpetually bloodshot and smiling. By the time David was ten, his grandfather would let him tag along when he went down to the West Village to find a match in one of the storefront chess parlors that were prevalent at the time. Soon he began lining up matches for David, carefully picking opponents who would challenge but not overwhelm him. He would sit to the side and silently watch every move. They would stop for something to eat on the way home; their favorite spot was a diner on Sixth Avenue near West Seventh Street. David would order a milk shake and a BLT while his grandfather would sip coffee and recap the match. He would patiently point out alternative strategies that David might have pursued, opportunities he missed. He would use salt and pepper shakers as queens and bishops and forks and spoons as pawns and rooks to illustrate his points. David was sixteen when his grandfather died. He went down to the Village on his own a few times after that to find a match but it was never the same.

David’s grandfather would have liked Maureen. His parents told him pointedly that he could do much better. They first met Maureen during his junior year on their annual trip to Oberlin for parents’ weekend. It was a visit David dreaded and one his parents treated like a mandatory social obligation. Maureen had a tendency to talk fast when she was nervous, to try to fill in every gap in a conversation. Her Midwestern accent would get more pronounced. David found it charming but when Maureen used the phrase “y’all” he saw his father cringe. When Maureen dropped her fork at dinner, David’s mother looked away remorsefully as it clattered to the floor.

“Your parents don’t like me,” Maureen said the day after they left. There was no bitterness in her voice; she stated it as a simple fact.

“They don’t have to. I like you.” David hesitated. He always chose his words carefully. “In fact, I love you.” It was the first time he had expressed this sentiment to anyone.

Maureen’s eyes widened, filled with tears. Then she smiled. “I love you too, David.”

Maureen moved to New York after graduation and took a job teaching third grade at a public school in Hell’s Kitchen. David enrolled at NYU Law School. They decided to live together before getting married. It was the seventies and such arrangements were not yet accepted on the Upper East Side.

“You’re going to be an attorney,” David’s father said when they announced their intentions. He spoke directly to David, ignoring Maureen who was sitting beside him on the sofa. “You can’t go off and live like two beatniks. I find the whole arrangement scandalous. If you proceed, you do so without my blessing.”

They rented a tiny fourth floor walk-up on the edge of the East Village. Maureen was intimidated by the city at first: the pace, the noise, the sour stench of the trash piling up on the sidewalks, the aggressiveness of the people. She adapted. They married almost two years later in a simple City Hall ceremony. There were no guests.

David got his degree and was hired on at Sullivan and Cromwell. He was assigned to the tax department. He found the work satisfying. The tax code was dense, complex, its language thickly nuanced. It took patience and rigorous logic to find the most unlikely connection, the tiniest opening that could be cleverly exploited. In that way, it was a lot like chess.

David became a leading expert in off-shore tax shelters. His aggressive, meticulously-crafted strategies saved his clients millions. He spoke at legal conferences in San Francisco, Palm Springs, Denver, Honolulu, even London when the ABA held its annual Tax Section meeting there. He might have been in a conference room in his Midtown office for all he saw of those places. It was the same windowless hotel ballrooms with their bland floral wall coverings and dim yellow lighting, the same flavorless food, the same banal small talk. He would pack a briefcase with work to do on the plane and in his hotel room to get his quota of billable hours in. It was good for business, helping him draw in clients and referrals from other law firms, but he hated being taken away from Maureen and Steven. He missed his normal routine.

David cherished the law. As a student, he read with awe the writings of John Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas and the other great legal minds. He marveled at how a few men on the Warren Court could forever change the course of history with their courageous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But the practice of law changed dramatically over the years. What he once considered an honorable and learned profession had become nothing more than a business, its reputation tarnished by the shrill tasteless television ads placed by ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyers. He suffered through partnership meetings devoted to slick presentations by advertising firms about the best strategies for marketing legal services. There were endless debates about the proper way to allocate profits between the rainmakers and the transactional lawyers. The rainmakers increasingly held sway, cutting lucrative deals with rival firms that coveted their client lists or using the threat of a defection to extort a bigger cut of the pie. Loyalty became a quaint, outmoded concept. By the time David turned sixty, he had had enough.

Angela picked up David’s empty glass and wiped down the counter in front of him.

“Doin’ ok over here?” She cocked her head to one side. David understood it as a rhetorical question. People didn’t really care how you were doing.

“Fine,” he said. It was the answer she was looking for. She seemed like a nice kid. He wouldn’t burden her with his story. He wouldn’t tell her how desperately quiet his apartment felt, how his social life consisted mainly of casual banter with the doorman and brief pleasantries exchanged with his neighbors on the elevator, how he had senselessly renewed Maureen’s subscription to Psychology Today just a week ago.

“Want another?”

“Sure. One more,” David answered.

David looked out from his barstool toward the water. A young mother and her son were bobbing up and down in the surf. They were laughing. The boy’s arms were wrapped tightly around the woman’s neck. A wave rolled in and they jumped to clear it, the boy screaming with delight. David remembered Maureen playing in the water with Steven while he sat on the beach under an umbrella. He would have a book open in his lap but mostly he sat and watched the two of them, waving if they looked his way.

Maureen had encouraged David to take swimming lessons after Steven was born. He signed up for private lessons at the Y with a polite young college student. He quit after the third lesson.

“Why?” Maureen asked.

“I’m afraid of the water. I panic every time my head goes under.”

“That’s what the lessons are for. Give it time.”

“You don’t understand. You’ve always known how to swim. It’s hard when you’re an adult. You can’t overcome the fear. It’s hard to explain. It’s humiliating too, splashing around in the shallow end with the instructor’s arm around your waist so you don’t sink.”

“No one is watching you. And if they are, so what?”

“At least I learned the dead man’s float.”

“See! There’s hope for you yet.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t give up. Think how much you’ll miss if you do.”

The mother and the young boy were running up onto the beach now, red-faced and breathless, their teeth chattering as they dried themselves with their towels in the sun. Maureen was right, he had given up on the lessons too soon.

When Angela returned with his drink, David asked for the check. He took a long sip and the frozen liquid triggered a sudden headache. He walked back to his room to rest.


David woke up woozy and disoriented, surprised that the bedside clock told him it was past nine. That was when he had walked back down to the beach. The salty air was invigorating. He stood up and brushed the sand from his legs and off the seat of his shorts. Oddly, he felt drawn to the ocean. He walked down onto the spongy wet ribbon of beach closest to the water, letting the foam curl around his ankles. He had never liked the brackish clammy feel of the ocean, the way the pebbles and shells shifted under his feet and stabbed at the soles, the way the seaweed clung to his toes, but tonight the water felt almost medicinal.

David stepped out tentatively until the water reached his waist. His shorts became heavy. His boxers clung to his shriveling skin. The feeling was exhilarating. A wave crested and rolled up his back as he turned away. He went under for just an instant but didn’t feel the usual panic. He continued to move slowly away from shore, taking testing little bunny hops with his feet to pop himself out of the water. There was no one in sight.

David leaned his head back, extended his legs and began to float. He was surprised that he still remembered how. There was no moon and he was out beyond the reach of the lights from the hotel tower. There was a scattering of pulsing stars but the sky out there had an intense blackness, a gauzy depth that seemed to reach out to infinity. He wasn’t a religious man. The sympathy cards that arrived in his mailbox uniformly assured David that the sender’s “thoughts and prayers” were “with” him. He wondered how many of his friends actually prayed. Maureen was raised Catholic. She had believed in prayer, even attended Mass regularly at one time, but she, too, eventually became ambivalent.

David had no illusions that there was an afterlife where he and Maureen would be united. He was a man of logic. It just didn’t add up. Their forty-two years together, that was tangible, something he could hold on to. It was the little things he remembered the most. There were evenings at the opera where he would glance over at Maureen during a powerful aria and marvel at her rapt attention, her mouth slightly open, her hand pressed to her chest. There were the winter excursions to Wollman Rink in Central Park when Steven was young, each of them holding one of his hands as he struggled to stay upright on his ice skates, all of them sitting on a park bench afterward sipping hot chocolate and watching their breath float away like little puffs of smoke in the frigid air. There was their ritual of sleeping late on Sundays then walking to brunch at Sarabeth’s on Central Park South. Maureen would always order the lemon-and-ricotta pancakes. Then they would spend the afternoon reading The Times. Maureen would start with the Arts section, carefully ripping out notices about upcoming gallery exhibits or listings for off-Broadway plays. David would glance at the Sports page then plow into the Business and Real Estate sections. Sometimes they would work the crossword together.

Toward the end, David would spend long hours by Maureen’s bedside watching her sleep. Her thick red hair had lost its intensity and slowly grayed over the years. Now it had turned a wispy white. Her skin was pallid, almost translucent, hanging loosely from her cheekbones. One day she opened her eyes—still an intense green but fearful now—to find David staring at her.

“Will you miss me?” she asked softly.

“Of course I will.”

Even after the oncologist had coldly advised Maureen to “put her affairs in order,” the two of them had kept up the illusion that she would recover. She had that relentlessly positive spirit that made it seem possible. But the cards were all clearly on the table by then.

“I don’t want you to dwell on it, ok? Get on with your life.” She had given him this sermon before, he knew what the response should be.

“I will.”

She smiled sadly. They both knew better.

David really did try. He joined a support group, reached out to some of his old law partners to schedule lunch dates, signed up for adult education classes at The New School. Still, he would find his mind drifting. He would see something interesting on the street and make a mental note to tell Maureen about it when he got home, then he would remember that there was no one at home to tell. He worried what would happen if he got the flu. Maureen would always be there to bring him those first few sips of ginger ale after the nausea had subsided. She would pour some into a glass then leave it on the kitchen counter for a few minutes to let the carbonation settle, let it come to room temperature so it wouldn’t be too jarring on his stomach. His mouth would be so dry it would taste like champagne. Then she would go down to the Jewish deli to get him a bowl of chicken broth. He could call the deli to order in but it wouldn’t be the same. David wondered who would plan his funeral, whether anyone would even come.

The water went calm for a moment, splashing languidly around him, rocking him softly up and down. David never planned to come out this far, never intended to go into the water at all. He wasn’t sure he could even make it back to shore but he felt an odd sense of tranquility. He had lived a good life. He had mastered the complexities of the tax code, provided useful counsel to his clients. He had read history, had been a loyal and trusted husband, a reasonably good father. There was nothing more he wanted. There was nothing more he needed to do.

David waited calmly for the next wave to take him where it would.


Ralph Uttaro lives and writes in Rochester, New York. His work has previously appeared in Toasted Cheese and in other publications such as Bartleby Snopes and Blue Fifth Review. Email: ruwriting[at]

In My Old Neighborhood

Ralph Uttaro

brooklyn stoops
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.”

We laughed.

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.

“All done?”

“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]