Atlantic City

Andy watched the cars around them puff vapor as his grandfather’s Cadillac slid through the Sunday church traffic on Cheltenham Ave. Pop flicked cigarette ash out the driver’s window. “Lock your doors when you drive through Olney,” he said. “You were born in Olney.”

Andy held his breath to keep the smoke out of his lungs and closed his eyes. His temples throbbed; the backs of his eyes ached. He’d had seven shots of airplane gin the night before, on a flight that landed late in Philly thanks to driving sleet. Four hours of sleep had done nothing to ease the pain.

Pop swung the Caddy through a gap in the wrought-iron fencing. The car plowed through a puddle and passed a low stone building with green landscaping trucks parked outside. A bronze crucifix stood by the door.

“Holy Sepulchre. Remember that. Lots of graveyards in Philadelphia,” Pop said, turning to Andy, eyebrows arching above his fishbowl glasses. The road branched into a network of smaller lanes marked with letters. “Lane D,” Pop said. They approached a fork and Pop pointed to a tomb with brass doors gone green from age. “Turn left at Felix Hanlon. Remember that name – left at Felix Hanlon.”

Andy knew he was only telling him all of this because Pop thought he was going to die soon. Andy had been doing the same thing since his mother died three months earlier, covering all of his bases, even though he was forty years younger than Pop. He’d even had the estate lawyer draw up his will. But Pop could have saved himself the trouble: Andy wouldn’t remember the way to his mother’s grave. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to.

They passed a line of limestone mausoleums strung along a side hill. A thin man stood in the middle of a plot by the side of the road, hands stretching the pockets of his jacket. Pop pulled over behind a silver Buick and parked.

“There’s Eddie,” Pop said, and Andy realized that the man standing among the graves was his great-uncle.

They slid off the leather seats and closed the doors softly. The grass was slick underfoot. When they reached Eddie, he nodded; his great-uncle was the tallest person in the family, and he looked down on everybody.

“How you been, Andy?” Eddie shook Andy’s hand.

“Still living,” Andy said, shrugging. He was surprised that Eddie had called him by the right name; most of the family confused him with his older brother, Josh.

Eddie said hello to Pop and the brothers hugged awkwardly, as if they were trying to lift each other but couldn’t find the proper hold.

“Your brother couldn’t make it?” Eddie asked Andy, frowning.

“He had to work,” Andy said. It was a lame excuse, but the one Josh had given. Andy knew his brother had stayed home in an attempt to move on; he was rejecting the family’s protracted mourning. Andy had considered doing the same, but felt obligated to see this through to the end: he wanted to watch his mother’s ashes lowered into the earth. He’d toss the dirt over her himself, if it meant it would finally be over.

Andy’s eyes drifted to the crest of the hill, where angels and crosses shared the gray skyline with apartment buildings and the parapets of Beaver College, the unfortunately named all-girls school a block over. At least the weather’s right, he thought. The storm had passed in the night, and now a dirty fog lingered at the bottom of the hill, erasing the gravestones. The December cold had already begun to stiffen his fingers. Living in Arizona hadn’t prepared him for this.

“He’s late,” Pop said, glancing at the tarnished watch on his wrist.

“The priest?” Andy asked.

Pop nodded. “He’s going to do a ceremony.” Pop spread his hands in front of him, as if to illustrate.

Eddie muttered something under his breath. He was probably still upset that the funeral hadn’t happened in Philly, where the family had lived for four generations. It was her birthplace, Andy’s birthplace, everybody’s birthplace. But Andy knew she’d moved to Arizona for a reason, raised them there, died there. He didn’t know what reason, but it had taken a crematorium and a box to get her back.

Andy tried to read the names inscribed behind the filthy windows of the family mausoleum. Pop and Eddie wandered the gravestones that lay flat and black in the grass of the family plot, like windows into the underworld. Pop began to read the names aloud. It took Andy a moment to realize that it was for his benefit. Pop pointed to the grave that held his parents. “Cancer,” he said. “Both of ’em.” He stopped at another and introduced Andy to the great-great uncle he would never meet. “Japs got him,” he said. “Sank his boat and let the sharks do the rest.” At the next stone, Pop didn’t say anything. Andy read the inscription:


John M., Jr.

February 15, 1938 –

Miriam A.

May 13, 1938 – December 29, 2000

Together in life, together at rest.

Pop had already had his name put on, right above his wife’s. A few years earlier, Grandma Mary had started to forget things. Then Pop woke up at midnight to an empty bed and the whine of a vacuum. He found her in the living room, dressed in an evening gown and slippers, vacuuming the drapes. She’d died soon after of a brain disease the doctors couldn’t identify. The last time Pop saw her, she didn’t know who he was. Andy had heard the story from his mother before she died. He’d never talked to Pop about anything other than Philadelphia sports.

“What’s your middle name?” Andy asked.


Andy chuckled, despite himself. “Seriously?”

Pop’s lips moved silently, then words came out. “This is where I’ll be soon, Josh.”

“Andy. I’m Andy.” It sounded angrier than he meant it to, and his grandfather looked up with hurt in his eyes. Andy felt bad for saying it, but he was sick of making arrangements, sick of spending perfectly good and vital days of his life making order out of death: who inherited what, where to have the funeral, where to bury the ashes. It struck him that he still didn’t know exactly where they were burying her – he hadn’t yet seen her grave. He asked and Pop pointed to a plot in the back corner, next to a pathway for lawnmowers, where a canvas tarp stretched across a hole in the ground. Andy felt a surge of resentment toward those strange dead relatives who had taken all the good spots.

Pop’s face flickered. “And then you can go above her,” he said, shuffling his hands in a stacking motion. Andy looked at Pop in disbelief. They stack caskets, he thought, like cars at parking lots in Newark. Pop squatted and began to rub the letters of his own name.

Brakes creaked behind him and Andy turned to see a landscaping truck pull up next to the Caddy. A priest in a black parka got out and walked toward them. He introduced himself and apologized for his lateness.

“I’ll go get her,” Pop said, and walked to the car. As Pop reached into the trunk, the priest looked to the sky, as if afraid of rain. Pop walked over holding the urn, a small pewter-colored box with an inscription Andy knew by heart:

Deborah Ann Bennett

August 10, 1957 — September 19, 2001

A loving daughter, a loving mother.

Andy had chosen the words himself, because his brother didn’t want to, and neither of them trusted anybody else. He’d agonized over how to best describe his mother; he wanted to give speeches, loud long eulogies to crowds full of everyone who’d ever known her, and everyone who hadn’t, to tell them all what she was – retired Army, a small-business owner, a single mother of two from a bad part of a bad city who got by on her smarts and her sweat instead of a welfare check. How remarkable she had been, how much better than all the useless people still breathing everywhere he went. He soon realized he couldn’t sum that up, so he went with relativity: who she was to those who loved her. A daughter, a mother. His mother.

Pop set the urn in the dirt next to the tarp. The priest pulled a prayer card from his jacket pocket and read the prayer of committal. Andy followed along in his head: We commend to Almighty God our sister Deborah… Ashes to ashes, and all that.

The priest finished. Andy waited for him to move the tarp and put her into the grave. The priest stood there for a moment, expressed his regrets, and shook hands with Pop and Eddie. He reached for Andy’s hand, and it extended mechanically, but Andy didn’t let go.

“That’s it?”

The priest nodded. “The prayers of committal have been read. Now she can be interred.” He tugged against Andy’s grip, and Andy relented. He looked to his grandfather and pointed at the tarp, then at the urn nestled in the grass.

“They take care of that later,” Eddie said. He clenched Andy’s shoulder. “It’s okay, son. You don’t want to see that, anyway.”

# # #

Andy read the Lee’s Hoagie House menu while his grandfather and Eddie ordered their usuals. Pop got a pizza steak, Eddie a cheesesteak. The man behind the counter stared at Andy from below a dirty Phillies hat. Andy ordered a turkey hoagie.

They stood by the pickup counter tapping their feet.

“You sure you ought to have a pizza steak, Pop?” He’d had a heart attack a decade ago, and he was six months removed from triple-bypass surgery. The whole family had been praying that his heart would hold up, that he could survive the death of his only child five years after the death of his wife, that they wouldn’t have to have another funeral, for him.

Pop shrugged and said he only had one every blue moon. Andy saw Eddie glaring at him and dropped the subject. They slid into a green vinyl booth.

“What was she like?” Andy asked. “As a kid, I mean.”

Pop’s jowls fell, then a wan smile creased his cheeks. He cleared his throat.

“How you like that new Cadillac?” Eddie asked. He nodded toward the parking lot, where the Caddy squatted alone among the weeds poking through the cracked asphalt.

Pop’s head turned from Andy to Eddie, then back again. “Good car,” he said. “Rides real nice. Lots of power.” He rubbed his nose where the glasses pinched his skin, then put his sandwich down and excused himself. As Pop disappeared into the bathroom, Eddie flicked onion bits from his lips and spoke directly to Andy. “Jesus, kid, don’t you know what he’s been through?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

Eddie wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Why don’t you two do something to take his mind off it? Go see a game.”

“You know how hard it is to get Eagles tickets, Eddie?” Andy glanced at the yellowed Yuengling signboard on the wall.

Eddie leaned across the table. “You ain’t got to tell me. I been here all my life, remember. Sixty-eight years I been watching that sorry-ass team.” That didn’t keep him from telling Andy about the old Eagle greats – Van Buren, Bednarik, Jaworski – until Pop came back to the table. They made small talk while they finished their lunch. Andy left most of his hoagie sitting on the grease-spotted wrapper.

In the parking lot, Eddie snuck a few bills into Andy’s goodbye handshake, shooting him a wink.

“You kids go have yourselves some fun,” he said, slamming the door of his new Buick. Andy watched his brake lights plunge as he drove down the steep curb. They got into the Cadillac. Andy reached into the center console for a breath mint to kill the taste of onions.

“So what do you want to do?” Pop asked. He cranked the key and the Caddy rumbled. Go home, Andy thought. I’d like to go home. But he couldn’t say that any more than he could do it. He turned on the radio:

Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty…

He’d know Springsteen anywhere; he’d heard his voice so many times, crackling on Mom’s record player, wailing through the house every time she broke up with one of her boyfriends, or one of her husbands. The harmonica came in, screaming, as if somebody were sobbing into the mouthpiece.

“ Atlantic City,” Andy said.

“Good song.” Pop reached for the volume knob.

“We should go,” Andy said, and the moment he heard his own words inside his head, he knew that it was right. He saw Pop’s face settling and knew what he would say: too far; he hadn’t been in years; it would all be different now.

“C’mon, Pop. It’s, what, an hour away? It’ll be fun. You can show me around.” They needed to do something besides sit and eat and mourn; it had been too long, three months that felt like his entire lifetime, one long learning curve of grief. They had to do something to remind themselves that they were still alive. Their luck had to change.

Pop took off his glasses and wiped them. His eyes were red around the edges.

“Okay, pal,” Pop said. “What the hell, right?”

# # #

Andy watched Pop behind the wheel. One of his grandfather’s hands held his cigarette up to the cracked window; the heel of the other rested on the steering wheel, when he wasn’t gesturing. Pop was telling jokes.

“What do you call a white man in Camden?”

Andy winced.

“Officer!” Pop chuckled.

Andy forced a grin while he wondered how it was ever normal to talk like that. It was another reminder of the generation gap between them, the one his mother used to bridge. Now it was just them, two men who shared blood and nothing else, who hardly knew each other at all. There’s still time, he thought. They were young enough: Pop was sixty-five, but he could have passed for sixty easily, and besides, Andy was twenty-three and he felt fifty and sixty and seven hundred, ancient, like he was carved in rock. Together, he thought, they could burn up the blackjack banks. They could take Atlantic City; make a memory or two that didn’t involve death or long-distance phone charges.

He was dreaming stacks of green when the car shuddered. Pop had let it drift onto the rumble strips on the side of the highway. He whipped the wheel, crossing the dotted line, nearly side-swiping a Volkswagen. Andy gripped his chest with one hand and shoved the other against the dash. He closed his eyes and considered saying a prayer.

“Don’t worry,” Pop said, slapping Andy’s hand away from the dashboard with his own, which should have been steering the car. “Safest road in America, right here. They did a survey.”

The road was the least of Andy’s worries. He had spent most of the trip envisioning the Caddy blowing a tire, them veering across the median into oncoming traffic. Their caskets lowering into the family plot, one on top of the other. Strips of rubber, lug nuts, Pop’s surgically repaired arteries: their lives relied on so many things.

Pop pointed to the horizon, where angular casinos reared above the treeline. They passed a sign announcing the end of the expressway, rounded a corner, and Andy got his first glimpse of Atlantic City. It was not what he expected: no lights or marquees or bright casino entrances beckoning. Bars covered the windows and graffiti covered everything else. Gas stations and liquor stores fought for space with fast-food restaurants and check-cashing centers. A homeless old woman in a little girl’s coat staggered down the sidewalk pushing a shopping cart half-full of clothes stained with dark blotches. They drove down the street in silence, like observers in a war, until they could see the ocean peeking out between the high-rises on the boardwalk. Their brief sense of dread dissipated in the winter breeze blowing in off the beach.

# # #

The table was hot. Pop flicked chips from the Technicolor puddle in front of his ashtray. Andy plucked his carefully from neat stacks.

“You gamble a lot back home?” Pop asked.

“Nope, not much,” Andy said. The woman dealing shot him a look; for the last hour, he’d been splitting eights and aces, doubling every eleven. There was no reason to lie. “I go to Vegas a few times a year.” Actually, there was a reason to lie – Andy wasn’t going to tell him that he’d donated most of his mother’s modest life insurance money to tip jars and chip racks.

“No kidding? We used to go, Mary and me.”

The dealer flipped her hole card, a king, then dropped a nine next to the six already showing. Bust. Easy money.

“Always stayed at the Flamingo,” Pop continued. “Ever been there? That’s a classy joint.”

“Sure is,” Andy said. It once was, judging by the pictures in the lobby. When he had gone, the bedspreads smelled like pipe tobacco and the flamingos were molting.

Pop squirmed in his seat and stretched. “How about we make things interesting before we head to the boardwalk?” he said, sliding his whole stack into the circle: four blacks and a ten-stack of green. Andy had less; a glance told him about three-fifty. He’d bought in with the three hundred Eddie had given him, taken a dive right away, then climbed back up during the hot shoe they’d just finished.

The dealer tapped a long red fingernail against the felt in front of Andy. “Bet?” she asked, in a shrill foreign accent that irritated him.

He’d told himself he wouldn’t gamble anymore. The money in his hand could delay the collection calls for a month, buy him another two weeks without an eviction notice. Now that he’d dropped out, the banks were sending letters about his student loans. He refused to ask Pop for money, because he didn’t want him to think he was after an inheritance. That wasn’t why he was there. He had come to settle things. He had come to start anew.

Andy slid his whole stack into the circle. They were still young.

The cards came quickly: an ace each. Andy’s chest stretched tight across his ribs as the deal came around to fill them up: Pop caught a seven, Andy another ace. The dealer flipped a queen.

“Jeez,” Pop said. “This ought to be good.” He winked at Andy and tapped his finger. She dealt him a ten that made his soft eighteen hard. She turned to Andy.

“Twelve,” she said, her accent butchering the word.

Andy considered for another moment. Always split aces. Always. He turned to Pop.

“How much cash you got?”

Pop pulled out his money clip and counted twenties. “ Two forty,” he said.

“Twelve,” the dealer said again. Twerve, he thought, feeling a sneer start and scolding himself. It was a ten-dollar table on a Tuesday afternoon in December, and if they lost they wouldn’t have anything left to tip her. They were being assholes, but he didn’t give a shit. The world owed them that much. More.

He looked at her name tag. “Where’s the fire, Fong?”

The woman scowled as he counted the money in his wallet: five twenties, a five, four crumpled ones. He checked his pockets: three quarters and three dimes. He had a nickel to spare.

“Split ’em,” he said, taking Pop’s offering and slapping it all down on the table. “You can keep the change.” He winked at Fong and felt his blood rising for the first time in forever.

She flipped an eight and smirked; it widened into a smile when she turned another ace. Nineteen and twelve against a face card showing. Pop had eighteen. They were going to lose everything.

She pointed her fiery fingernail at the leftmost hand, the pair of aces. “Split again, Bugsy?”

Andy leaned against the back of his chair and exhaled. He saw that a small crowd of degenerates had gathered behind them. That kind of hand didn’t happen every day. The pit boss appeared behind the dealer, arms folded. Andy doubted he’d give them a marker for three-fifty after the way he’d been acting. He had resigned himself to another loss when Pop spoke.

“ Three fifty now, I’ll pay you five or a Rolex in thirty seconds,” Pop said to the handful of onlookers. He slid his watch off his wrist and dangled it between his fingers. It had diamonds on the face and, Andy knew, an inscription on the back: Thanks for the best twenty years of my life. Love, Mary.

“Pop, what are you—.”

Pop extended a palm. His face was flushed. A tattooed man in a tank top took the watch and looked it over. The diamonds did their job; old as it was, the watch was worth a few large, easy.

“My kind of guy,” said tank top. He dug a handful of chips from his jeans. The pit boss moved toward Pop.

“You got a problem?” Pop spat. The pit boss blinked to a stop, surveyed the empty casino floor, and shook his head before stepping back. Pop was old, but he wasn’t one to back down. He swept the chips from tank top’s hand into his own and then dropped them into Andy’s cupped palms like an offering. Tank top put the watch on the table, and Andy saw Pop’s eyes linger on it.

“You don’t have to,” Andy said.

Pop shot him a smile that showed he wasn’t sure about it, either. “All I’ve got is time, pal.”

Fong’s fingernails massaged the deck as Andy counted how much was at stake. In his head, Springsteen again: I got debts no honest man can pay. He held his breath as the cards came down.

King of diamonds.

Suicide Jack.

He let it out. He was buying dinner, no matter what she had. Fong let the slot machines jingle for a long second before she showed her hand.

Deuce. Twelve, the dealer’s ace, Andy thought.

Then a Queen fell, and the table erupted. A grandmother slapped Andy’s hand. He looked over and saw tank top put his arm around Pop. They’d pay him back, keep the watch, and clear more than fifteen hundred in profit.

“Color us up,” he said to Fong, but she was watching Pop with widened eyes. Andy turned to see his grandfather clutching at his chest. Sweat beaded above his glasses.

“Pop?” Andy said. He shot out of his stool, knocking it over. He slapped tank top’s arm away from Pop’s shoulders and replaced it with his own. He felt the group crushing in around him. The stale smoked clogged his nose and the slot machines rang in his ears. Should I tell him I love him? Is this my last chance?

“I’m … okay,” Pop said, wiping his forehead. “Just … out of breath … is all.”

Andy put his fingers against Pop’s damp neck, trying to remember the CPR class he’d taken in high school. He felt a pulse pushing back against his skin and said a silent prayer of thanks, to God, to his mother, to whoever was watching over them.

“Let’s get you out of here,” he said, helping Pop out of his chair.

Two steps from the table, Pop wheezed: “The money.” Andy turned and stuffed the stack of black and gold chips into his pockets. He cleared a path for them with a glare and they walked to the door, the soft red carpet sucking at their shoes.

# # #

The waves crashed along the boardwalk and the wind cut through their clothes. Pop leaned back against the marble wall and blinked slowly.

“Scared you, didn’t I?”

Andy giggled, even though he didn’t find it funny. His head felt light and airy, and his skin prickled from the cold and the relief. He looked down the boardwalk, past the T-shirt shops and food booths, to the palatial Taj Mahal at the far end.

“You ever played a hand like that?” Pop asked.

“Nope. You?”

Pop shook his head. “Mary didn’t like to gamble. She was real classy, you know, and even back then A.C. was going to hell in a bucket.” They watched a homeless man walk by. “I used to bring your mom down here, when she was just a kid.”

At the mention of his mother, Andy blinked, then smiled, as his mind reacted in its usual way: picturing her alive, pushing brown curls behind her ear, and then picturing the urn with her name engraved on it.

“We were both kids, really.” Pop had his only child at nineteen; Andy knew that much. He imagined himself with a four-year-old child. What a disaster that would be. “She loved the water, that girl. Couldn’t get her to come out until her fingers were all shriveled up–” Pop clenched his hands “–and her skin looked like a stop sign.” He sighed. “She just wouldn’t listen.”

Andy wondered whether Pop had pulled the watch stunt so that he’d have a similar story to tell about them. I used to take him down the shore to A.C. Kid had brass balls – split aces three times once, almost cost me my watch. Or was it for Andy’s sake, to give him something to remember about his grandfather? Next thing I know Pop’s waving his watch around. He bet a Rolly on me. That’s the kind of faith he had. A funeral anecdote.

“I’m glad we came down here, Pop.”

“Me too, pal.” Pop smiled. “Haven’t been in years. Glad we got a chance to see it —

Andy sensed Pop’s “before” coming and interjected. “You could come down whenever, Pop. It’s not far.”

Pop shrugged his shoulders and looked around. “With who?”

Andy followed his grandfather’s eyes to the waves eating away at the empty beach, the trash blowing down the boardwalk, the lights chasing each other around buildings. Overhead, flags popped in the wind like the knuckles of some giant, closing hand. He realized how terrible it would feel to be here alone, and he wanted to say that they could go together, he and Pop. He could come to visit more often, they could come back to A.C. for a weekend or two. If he could get Pop to fly out, maybe they could even hit Vegas for a weekend. But he didn’t say it, because he thought it might sound too much like a promise, or too much like a dream.

“Hell of a place you picked to rest,” Pop said. Andy looked behind him for the first time. He’d thrown open the doors of the casino and led Pop to the nearest place to sit, a low marble slab that he now saw was part of some monument. A huge bronze plaque of names stretched along a marble wall, and a statue of an officer stood in the middle of the plaza. The officer held his helmet at his side and stared down his arm at a fistful of dog tags, as if he didn’t know what they were.

Pop pushed himself up with one arm, and they walked slowly over to the sign.

“New Jersey Korean War Memorial,” Andy read.

“Wonderful spot for it,” Pop said, looking from the casino entrance on one side to the pizza joint on the other.

“Eight hundred twenty two dead or missing,” Andy said. “And this is what they get.”

# # #

Andy had checked twice on the way back from A.C. to make sure his grandfather was breathing but Pop stopped snoring and stirred as they climbed the rise of the Walt Whitman Bridge. The city unrolled before them, its lights cutting through the dusk. Past twinkling Center City sat the concrete face of the Vet, and behind it lurked the long, dark arms of the cranes brought in to build the two new stadiums that would make it obsolete. Between the Whitman and the Ben Franklin, the dying light curdled the water of the Delaware, and above the swaying masts at the landing, William Penn straddled the gold-lit steeple of City Hall.

“There used to be a law that said you couldn’t build anything taller than the tip of his hat,” Pop said, pointing at the city’s founder, then at the bank buildings dwarfing him. “That was a long time ago.”

It was dark outside by the time they parked outside Pop’s condo. He had fallen asleep again, cheek pressed against the seat, his mouth trailing moisture onto the leather. Andy got out of the car, closed the door softly, and stretched. The lights of the city seemed far away now, hidden behind the buildings of Pop’s complex, so he could only see the halo they cast into the sky. Between the homes, sprinklers threw sheets of water across the grass, and Andy stood watching his breath escape into the cold air, not wanting to wake Pop. They would go inside, and Andy would sleep in his mother’s old room, where the strange metallic wallpaper kept him awake with its reflections. Pop would sleep in his recliner, next to the nightstand he’d moved out into the living room, because his bedroom reminded him of his dead wife, and the other bedroom reminded him of his dead daughter.

Andy would leave in the morning, go back to Arizona with the money that stuffed his pockets. It was enough to make rent, pay the bills for another month. He’d have to find a job, something to do with himself. Maybe he’d enroll in spring classes at the local community college.

And Pop would stay right here, Andy knew, no matter what he said or did or tried to plan to change it. He’d sleep in the same empty condo, drive the same old Caddy, until he moved across Philadelphia to join his wife and daughter. It was just a matter of time, now; the grave had already been marked with his name.

Andy thought of the family plot, where they had been that morning. He wondered if his mother’s ashes had been buried yet, whether the grass had begun to take root in the raw dirt above her. He wondered how long it would take to grow over, for the brown earth to turn green. Justin St. Germain was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Tombstone, Arizona. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona. This is his first published story.

A lifelong fan of the Eagles and Phillies, he was conceived the night the Phils won their last World Series. He’s been waiting for another title ever since.

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