I’d moved to Atlantic City to take care of my father. My sister Daphne had called from Tampa Bay to say that his number was up. [img_assist|nid=6458|title=Rittenhouse Square by Nancy Barch © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=250|height=183]
“What are we going to do?” she asked me, like we talked all the time, like we was a thing.
“He wouldn’t say.”
I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Jillian had left me. I was living in a basement apartment in Bensonhurst whose only window looked out to a dry cleaner’s vent. She’d run off with the guy, Nick, who’d fix our car; they sparred together at the zendo. Jillian was a brown belt. She’d go to the zendo morning and night, and suddenly our car was never in better shape. I was most likely gambling, as I gambled every day. I always had a bet on. That was my fix, my way of getting through this life that is supposed to bring happiness before the inevitable fold.
I’d been in Gamblers Anonymous for six months before my sister’s phone call. We didn’t talk much, which is to say we didn’t talk at all. Daphne had run off when she was just seventeen with an Iranian guy who sold jewelry. The guy, Danny—Danny! I remember my father saying, What kind of a name for an Arab is that? Danny?!—was more than twice her age, and he took her to Tampa Bay where they’ve been happy ever since. They go on cruises and have Danny’s mother over for dinners, and the last time I had seen Daphne—maybe four years earlier when I was in the middle of my master’s thesis on Joyce, Yeats, and Synge, and an Anaheim Raceway horse-betting binge—she had told me they were thinking of children.
I don’t know what happened with her plans. I didn’t follow up. There was my teaching assistant money from the English department going to football and basketball and the track, there was a short, six-month bout with drinking, and then Jillian’s pregnancy, our marriage, and the miscarriage. And then the move back East where we lived with Jillian’s mother—herself addicted to mah jong and juicing—and the trips to Atlantic City to visit my old man (who’d been born there of all places and who’d moved back to be near the casinos). And the jobs I could not keep—men’s suits, ice delivery, shoes—and then the final blow, where I found myself washing dishes in the back of a Brighton Beach Ukrainian discotheque. The owner’s brother had busted one of my shins and had said he’d bust the other if I didn’t make him back the money I’d borrowed to put on a sure thing.
For better, for worse, my father did not survive long after I moved in. He was taken care of by the guy, Mr. Stottlemyre, who lived across the hall. The whole building, The Sea Crest, was out of another era. No one in the building was under 70, except the blacks who, Mr. Stottlemyre said, were in there either on behalf of the state government or the Atlantic City Improvement Council.
“You can’t blame the shvartzes,” Mr. Stottlemyre said, running a mop around my father’s baseboards. “Where else are they going to go?”
Stottlemyre was 81. He’d lived in Toronto and then moved to Providence and eventually he’d ended up at the Sea Crest, floor seven, just across from my father and the room that had the lady with all the cats.
Stottlemyre was in costume jewelry. That’s how he put it, I’m in costume jewelry, such that I checked to see if he was wearing it. He told me how Providence was the costume jewelry capital of the world, and when he said it his eyes bulged wide and the veins stood out from his neck with conviction. He’d flail his arms to make a point, and then sit in a chair and say nothing. He smoked constantly, whatever he could borrow. He’d escaped the Nazis with his brother, who’d died packing fish in Toronto. And he was a member of the Atlantic City Polar Bear Club. Somehow, he’d gotten my old man to join. Every Sunday, at eight in the morning, they plunged in and swam.
My mother died when I was twelve, so my father had long been a widower. He never remarried. He worked in the train yards for the MTA, the big yard outside of Bensonhurst. I remember him always fixing things and always working. I went to St. Stephen’s in Bay Ridge and my sister to St. Mary’s, and when I’d get home she’d be out with a boyfriend and my father would be out at the yard, though I soon understood that he wasn’t working at the yard as much as drinking. Drinking killed him. He had cancer of the bladder, and because he didn’t get it looked at until too late—and he’d have to have been pissing blood for a month—the cancer got into the surrounding muscle and lymph nodes, and that was it. He carried a scrap of shrapnel in his shoulder his entire life—sometimes it would set off the metal detectors at airports when he flew to Florida to see Daphne and Danny at Christmastime—so I guess pissing blood did not seem too much of a big deal. The one time he came to see Jillian and me in Pomona he was drunk the whole trip. But we did get him into the Pacific—he always loved to swim—and he put Jillian’s niece up on his shoulders—you could see the thick scar from where the metal went in—to show her the seabirds in the sky.
He drank to the inglorious end. He’d get cheap drinks at the casinos, especially the older ones, which were being taken over, so nobody cared. If you ever want to knock off a casino, get them when they’re being sold, when the employees feel betrayed.
Stottlemyre, on the other hand, used the casinos as an upscale walking track. He got my father to come along: a small group of oldsters power-walking from one air-conditioned lobby to the next.
In the casino lounges, my father would start with beer and end with gin, and Mr. Stottlemyre would extinguish the cigars and turn off the living room lamps and pull a blanket across my father, who always had the windows opened in a building whose super used the heat sparingly.
For years after my mother died, I’d come down in the mornings for school and find my father asleep on the sofa. He slept only sporadically in the bed he’d shared with her. They were dancers; they’d met at one of those vast VFW dances, when my mother was just eighteen. She worked at Bell Atlantic until her death, and her death was a lingerer. She was in pain for nearly two years. That’s why my father didn’t call my sister until near his own end, I think. That and the drinking. He didn’t want to remember. At the end of my mother’s life, he’d go straight from the yard to the hospital, and she would have one roommate after another, in various stages of agony, and he’d sit in the visiting chair, and he’d wait for my mother to wake, running for the nurses if she wanted even the simplest thing. Thinking of it now, the panic in his body must have been crippling without a drink
Daphne and I were there when she died. She died with an intern yelling—really yelling—into her ear to see if she’d come back to life. I hid behind the silver wrap-around curtain, and my father found me and picked me up. His face was wet, and he told me I was a beautiful boy.
On the day my father headed to the big Caesar’s Palace in the sky, I was at a GA meeting. We’d got him so he could die at home, such as it was, at The Sea Crest. A male nurse came in once a day. Mr. Stottlemyre was there all the time. I wondered about Stottlemyre’s family. Stottlemyre had kids all over the place, as he put it, but in the five months I’d eventually live at the Sea Crest, I never saw them visit even once. Stottlemyre cooked and took my father’s sheets to the laundry and one time when I came home they were smoking cigars and he was covering my father’s hand with his own.
They talked about the War. My father had never talked about the War before, with me or my sister, as far as I know, and I don’t think much with my mother. I heard my father tell Mr. Stottlemyre that until he’d fought beside one, he’d never liked Jews, had heard they were stand-offish and yellow. Stottlemyre shrugged, said he’d heard all Irish were drunks. And he told me a story, one night when neither of us could sleep, when the Giants game was over and the TV reception was frazzled by a shore-line lightning storm, how in 1945, in northern Italy, with the War for all intents over, a German soldier no older than fifteen had shot at him. My father said he couldn’t believe it. He let the German kid get away, staring right into the kid’s face so the kid would know his benign intentions, and then the kid fired a second shot at my father—my father, an old man sergeant at twenty-one, who’d nearly bled to death from shrapnel in the neck, whose eardrum was punctured by mortar. The German kid leapt onto the back of a hay wagon, pointed his rifle right at my old man, and my father fired and killed him with a single shot to the head, the boy’s head bursting, he didn’t have to say it, with the lightning outside the window, with the glass untouched on his knee, all over the dry hay.
At the GA meeting, I talked a little about Jillian. About the late miscarriage, in the sixth month, how we’d feel Shea practicing kicks in the womb. Flying Monkey, Jillian would laugh. Horse Scraping the Hoof. I’d place my ear to Jillian’s belly to hear our daughter. I’d sing to Shea. Born to Run and Dirty Old Town. Jillian would read her stories. Maybe she came to know the fighting; maybe she came to know how in her name I was betting her upbringing away.
My sponsor, Bob A., a former card shark who’d had his teeth literally kicked in when he tried to hustle the larger games—we all had our little indignities—told me that Jillian hadn’t left me, but that I chose to let her go. Although I’m not the type, I nearly decked him.
When I came back from the meeting, Mr. Stottlemyre was reading a Bible and had covered my father’s whole body with a blanket. He didn’t look up when I came in. He sort of bobbed there, leaning over my father, praying, two water glasses half-full with seltzer, a cigar still smoking in the ashtray. The broken television set, the framed photograph from his wedding, the dusty sea bass mounted on the wall. I excused myself fast and headed for the bathroom.
I splashed my face with water. There were cigar ashes on the tap. My father would sit on the toilet and tap his cigar ash into the sink. I remember this as a kid, my mother complaining, It’s like living with Groucho. My father with, It’s the only place I can sit in peace! She was a duster, she always had the feathers flying. The house could be on fire, my father would say, and you’d run back inside to straighten! Once, winking at me, she’d vacuumed his chest hair when he’d fallen asleep eating crackers on the living room sofa. He jumped so high and laughed so hard that our cat leapt out the window onto Twelfth Street.
When I looked up from the ashes on the sink, I stared into the complete whiteness that I had experienced the time I was wrapped in the hospital curtain while the intern yelled into my dead mother’s ear. Out the opened window, an ambulance sirened. And then I realized that Stottlemyre had covered the medicine cabinet mirror with a towel that my father had swiped from the Holiday Inn. In the mirror, where my face should have been, was a casino in terry cloth relief.
I turned to the window. I hoisted it higher. The cold snapped in. Past the low roofs of Pacific Avenue banks of light swirled with the storm clouds; snowflakes flashed red, green, and gold. Beyond the lights, white caps crested the ocean. I looked down to the Avenue. The rows of air conditioners, the square windows each the same, dropping toward the street, where the ambulance’s lights whirled in front of a pawn shop, Gold Bought Here.
In the living room, Mr. Stottlemyre’s eyes were shut, the Bible open in his lap, the window shade pulled tightly behind him.
“Did you call someone?” I asked.
For a moment he seemed as far away as my old man. “Call your sister,” he suddenly said, and without opening his eyes he made a karate-chopping motion with his hand.
I pulled on my coat—a heavy coat that in fact had once been my father’s—to get out of there, and I walked up Kentucky Avenue fast. I walked past St. Joe’s, where my father had been confirmed in 1937, snow falling across headstones as in every Irish novel, past Dino’s Grinders, his favorite, Real Gravy Served Here. I crossed Atlantic and Pacific and up along Baltic and cut through the shitty little park the casinos built—seagulls clustered on the waterless fountain, a homeless kid slipping a bag over his head—and out onto the frigid boardwalk, and I wish I could say that I dove straight into the dark water like one of Stottlemyre’s bold cronies.
Instead, I sat on an icy bench—all the benches in Atlantic City have their backs to the sea—and watched two bronze horses guard two minarets. A couple of dealers came out, leaned on the concrete railing at the top of the flashing escalators, the Taj Mahal bright behind them, the gold plate, the lapis-like archway, inside the clashing of chips, the whorls of slots and roulette, the clean snap of blackjack and the tumble of fresh dice.
When my father was home from the Army for a few weeks and thinking about, I imagine, what to do, he drove down to Alabama to visit a guy he’d served with. He spent the night sleeping on a roadside in South Carolina, only to be awakened before sun-up by a cop about his age, rapping on the windshield. You can’t sleep here, son. He says it was the son that did it. My father stepped out of his car and decked the cop who merely looked up, lying on the ground on his back, and let my father drive away.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
The dealers lit cigarettes. When I called Daphne, Danny answered. He was in their back garden, in Tampa, spraying their lemon trees with soap.
Jeff Bens is author of the novel Albert, Himself and many short stories.