[img_assist|nid=825|title=F is For Fox by Kristen Solecki ©2008|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=198]After he hit our last halfie onto the roof of Perlstein’s Glass, Frankie Wnek stepped over the broomstick we used for a bat and shimmied up a drainpipe to get it. Frankie was my age, fourteen. Since I was pitching and gave up the home run, I was supposed to go, but when he said don’t worry about it, I wasn’t going to argue. Who knew when that pipe was going to snap away from the wall? Who knew that two older kids named Chickenhead and Toot were already up there, just for the hell of it, waiting to take turns punching whoever came up, then grab his ankles and swing him back and forth over the ledge?

Perlstein’s was a four-story building, so I had to look straight up to see what was going on, and I had to squint hard against the sun, which was just then breaking through a stretch of gray clouds. Frankie was screaming, of course, that goes without saying, and he kept trying to bend himself toward the roof like he was doing crunches, like I would have done, if I’d been the one up there. He could only get so far, though, before he dropped again and writhed like a snake, or like Houdini in those old black-and-white movies, hands clenched behind his knees. Frankie had long, straight black hair that hung a good foot below his head and his cheeks were watermelon red and puffy. Chickenhead and Toot laughed with their mouths wide open, looking at each other, then down at Frankie, then at the gathering crowd. They laughed even harder when Frankie pissed himself and the piss ran down his bare chest to his face.

“Oh my God!” I could hear one of them yell. “Holy
fucking shit!” Frankie turned his head to one side and shouted
for someone to get his mom, who was a bartender at Felix’s,
and after he did, about eight people took off to go get her. When
something like that happens, you do the first thing that makes
sense or you just stand there and do nothing. It’s one way
or the other­­––I learned that a long time
ago––and you don’t know until you’re in
the middle of something like that which way you’ll go. You
might yell for Chickenhead and Toot to pull Frankie up or run to
get Frankie’s mom or go home and call the cops or just stand
there watching the moment unfold like it’s on TV, like I

One thing you don’t do is look away. That’s against
human nature. You can try to turn from the stuff you don’t
want to see, but your mind will force you to look again, the same
way you’d have to turn and face the train you knew was about
to run you down. It’s not that I didn’t want to do
something. I did. Frankie was my friend since fifth grade and we
hung out together just about every day. It’s just that I
was more scared watching Frankie hang there than any time my father
went to town on my mother, which is saying a lot. I was afraid
the guys swinging Frankie would swing me next. Put yourself in
my shoes. You’re fourteen and don’t know what you’d
do even if you could do something. Maybe you talk to someone beside
you. Maybe you don’t or can’t. Maybe you look around
for your mother, even though she won’t be home for hours
yet, and your father, who you just know is going to show up soon
enough to put his two cents in. No matter what, you end up doing
something with your hands. You clasp your fingers together behind
your neck or across your forehead, or you squeeze them into fists
and bury them into your crossed arms, which is what I did. Even
that late in the year, I had a T-shirt on, and after we stopped
playing I got cold.

I watched from our sidewalk across the street, leaning without
thinking about it into the front fender of old man Dangler’s
shiny blue Charger. It all happened so fast––two minutes,
maybe three––but even now it’s still happening.
Frankie is hanging there four years before he enlists in the Army,
launches rockets in Kuwait , then comes home with headaches that
won’t let up and crisped bodies in his dreams that want nothing
to do with war. Chickenhead and Toot are laughing together two
years before they disappear separately, Chickenhead from a baseball
bat outside the Aramingo Diner, Toot from a heroin overdose in
the back bedroom of his sister’s house. Frankie’s mom
is limping up Jasper Street before she moved away without telling
anyone, her voice a shrill string of exclamations, hands over her
head as if she could pluck Frankie like a stray balloon. Then there
was my father, who had followed her out of the bar, quiet as he
always was, running a black pocket comb through his greasy blond
hair as he walked. A month later, already thinning from the cancer
that would kill him before spring, he’d call me from my room
one night to sit with him at the glass dinner table. He’d
have his tall can of Schaefer’s and tiny drinking glass,
and he’d ask me through a Pall Mall haze if I hated him.

It was the day of Halloween, and Perlstein’s Glass was
at the intersection of Huntington and Jasper Streets in Kensington,
a nothing neighborhood in North Philly once alive with mill work
and railroad traffic, but now stifled by El track shadows and the
hulking skeletons of burned-out factory buildings. The leaves on
the few trees were gone for the year with all of the birds except
for the pigeons that walked the roof’s ledge on either side
of Frankie, whose mom, despite her bad foot, got to the corner

“Frankie!” she yelled. “What the hell are you
two doing? Pull him up. Frankie!”

“Relax,” Chickenhead hollered down. Bob Harv gave
Chickenhead his nickname because of his skinny neck and early baldness. “We’re
just messing around. Right, Frankie?”

But Frankie didn’t say anything. He was crying hard and
trying to keep his head even with the horizon. His head must have

“Pull him up now or so help me God, I’ll kill you
both,” Frankie’s mom said.

Then my dad chimed in. “Let’s go, assholes. Move
it. Then get down here so I can beat some sense into you sons of
bitches.” He looked over his shoulder after he spoke and
saw me standing across the street.

“Hey, Davey,” he shouted. “Get over here.” He
kept staring at me until I started around the car toward him. I
didn’t like where all of this was headed, I’ll tell
you that. Even before I reached my dad, I could smell the stale
Schaefer’s on his breath and the Pall Mall smoke that stunk
up his clothes. I could see him already, wringing his fists in
Perlstein’s back alley, ready to be a tough guy like it’s
Friday night outside Felix’s and he just called someone into
the street because he didn’t like their look or their tone.
I could picture the ring of neighbors, some cheering, some with
crossed arms, in a side lot few cops came through. And I could
see what I guess he couldn’t: there were two of them, and
they would either gang up against him or run right past, laughing
at how drunk and slow and stupid he was. He was going to get killed
some day, my mother always told him.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” said Toot, who got his nickname
from blowing trumpet sounds into his thumb while getting stoned
with Mikey K., Vic Turner, and those guys outside Griffin’s
Deli. “Fucking cry baby.”

With that, Toot started to pull Frankie up without telling Chickenhead,
holding Frankie’s ankle with one hand while grabbing first
the back of Frankie’s knee, then his wrist, with the other.
Frankie’s weight shifted fast, and his ankle slipped so easily
from Chickenhead’s hands it’s amazing he hadn’t
already fallen. Frankie swung like a pendulum into the wall, face
first, and now Toot had Frankie all by himself. Toot had him pinned
against the building, underneath the stone ledge. You could see
he wouldn’t have him for long, though, and you could hear
it, too. Underneath Frankie screaming was Toot straining and grunting.

“Fuck,” Toot pushed out every few breaths. “Fuck,
stay still, man.”

Some people on the street started rushing back toward the sidewalk.
Many were crying, and with any quick move one way or the other,
you could hear the whole crowd suck in a breath. Now Toot was a
big dude––strong as hell, about 6’2” and
250 pounds––so Frankie’s lucky Toot had him and
not Chickenhead, who was about as scrawny as Old Lady Lewis, who
held her Yorkie against her shoulder as she looked up from her
spot next to three other women her age, which would have been around
my grandparents’ age if any of them had lived that long.
They all wore white Skippy tennis sneakers and shirts with pictures
of their dogs.

“Where the fuck are the cops?” someone asked, which
is what we were all wondering. And I was thinking about the bucket
truck they’d need to get Frankie down, along with Chickenhead
and Toot, and about the ambulance you could already imagine on
the sidewalk, with some EMT giving Frankie the once-over inside
the small van awash in yellow light. Someone said something about
getting mattresses, and then people were rushing again, including
my father this time.

“Come on, Davey,” he said, pushing me toward the
house. It was like I’d been stung by something, though. My
legs wouldn’t move. They had no strength in them, no feeling
whatsoever. I remember looking up at my father and saying “I
can’t” before he ran into our house without me.

“Hang on, baby,” Frankie’s mother called up. “Help’s
coming.” She was holding her hands up near her mouth and
squeezing the fingers of her right hand inside the fist of the

Chickenhead reached across Toot to grab Frankie’s other
arm and foot, but they hung too far down the wall, so he grabbed
the arm that Toot already had and pulled. I don’t know how
Frankie’s arm didn’t snap off or come out of its socket,
but Chickenhead and Toot were able to lift that arm enough to make
the other arm swing around, and when it did, on the third or fourth
try, Frankie grabbed onto the ledge and propped his legs stiff
against the wall. The three of them were working together now,
with Frankie’s feet flush against the bricks like he was
about to run up it and Toot tilted back at a forty-five degree
angle, like he was anchoring a tug-of-war, until Chickenhead pulled
so hard he almost threw himself past Frankie and off the roof.
He lurched forward far enough for me to see his whole top hanging
over the edge before something rocked him just as hard backward,
and when it did, Frankie’s feet found enough traction to
let him scale the few feet to the roof’s stone lip, when
he slid his knee over and Chickenhead and Toot pulled him up.

It was like the Phillies won the Series or something, let me
tell you. Everyone clapping and jumping up and down. Frankie’s
mom hugging everybody and saying, “Thank you, Jesus” to
the sky, as if God had been the one to pull Frankie up. Right or
wrong, that’s the version that spread around the neighborhood.
Father Flatley said so at Mass the next Sunday and, for the next
few months, people greeted Frankie on the street as Chosen One or,
more often, Jesus. People who didn’t like Frankie
from before cut him some slack, even if they teased him while they
did it. “Stay off those roofs, Jesus,” Chickie Pell,
who ran Griffin ’s, said one afternoon. “You ain’t
a bouncing ball.” My dad missed the whole thing fighting
with a mattress in our doorway. He didn’t see Frankie go
up, didn’t see all three of them sitting up there so close
they could have been friends. He brought the mattress out anyway,
just in case, and hollered up a few times for Chickenhead and Toot
to jump before some dads tried to calm him down, holding their
hands up to their shoulders, palms out, almost begging him, which
he liked, I think, more than Frankie being safe.

By the time the cops came, Chickenhead and Toot were gone. Frankie
yelled long after the fact that they had run to the back of the
roof, but he didn’t turn to look, which means they either
shot down that drainpipe pretty damn fast or they jumped across
the five-foot alley to a line of row houses and disappeared inside
an abandoned one. It took half an hour for a fire truck with a
bucket to show and get Frankie back to the street. It took the
rest of that week and into the next one for my father to stop talking
about what he would have done to Chickenhead and Toot, those
if he had gotten his hands on them. Anything could
have set him off, so my mother and I watched what we said and how
we looked at him more than usual. We made sure the front door was
unlocked when he came home from work and that there was a cold
can of Schaefer’s just opened on the table. And in my room
I rehearsed into my mirror what I’d do the next time his
voice boomed at my mother. I bent into the football crouch he taught
me and practiced throwing my shoulder like a punch. I pictured
his hands sliding from my mother’s face or neck to try in
vain to grab me as I charged. Every time I went over it in my head,
my mother got away clean, my shoulder drove through, not into,
him, just like he’d taught me, and took his sorry ass to
the ground.


Daniel Donaghy’s next collection of poems, Start with the Trouble, will be published by the University of Arkansas Press in fall 2009. His first collection, Streetfighting, was published by BkMk Press in 2005 and named a Finalist for the 2006 Paterson Prize. His poems and stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, New Letters, Image, and many other journals and have been featured on Poetry Daily and on the Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. He grew up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia and attended the High School for Engineering and Science before earning degrees from Kutztown University, Cornell University, and the University of Rochester. He now lives in Connecticut.

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