by Leslie Martinelli
My sister screams and folds me into a bone-crushing hug. “A year,” she says after pulling away. “A whole fucking year.”
“Hey, this train goes both ways, you know.”
I grab the handle of my rolling suitcase. Providence Station is busy, which is to be expected on Friday afternoon. Rosie maneuvers through the crowd like a quarterback headed for the endzone, which, in our case, is the parking lot.
“Where’s Joe Jr.?” I ask.
She pops the trunk. “Doing homework. Maybe.”
We reach her small house and pull into the driveway. Clocks were turned back three weeks ago, so the sun is still high enough to shine through the front window. Rosie slams the car door hard. A figure in the house pops up and runs toward the kitchen. Busted.
“Joey,” Rosie calls as we barrel in, “Come and say hi to Aunt Lyla.”
A reed thin boy slinks in from the kitchen. He’s taller than I remember. Well, what can I expect? It’s been three years. A lot of growing happens between ages six and nine.
“Hey, kid. I guess you don’t remember me.” I don’t force a hug from him. I’ll bribe him with junk food and games tomorrow at the street fair.
Rosie tells him to take my bag to his room. I don’t feel good about kicking him out of his room, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“What time does Dickie get home?” I ask.
Rosie gives me a look. He prefers to be called Rick. I think Dickie suits him better. “I never know.” She heads for the kitchen. “He works late a lot. Doesn’t always call.”
Typical. I never understood why Rosie stayed with him. When she married Rick Clancy, it made sense. He was in law school, and a lawyer was always a good bet. But that was ten years ago. Sometimes good bets don’t pan out.
We’re done with dinner and still sitting at the kitchen table when Dickie gets home. Rosie jumps up at the sound of the doorknob. She rushes to the stove to make his plate. “I didn’t think you’d be here so early.” She slides the plate into the microwave.
Dickie surveys his realm from the door. He hasn’t changed much in the eight years since I last saw him. Still tall, still slim, still blond and handsome. His eye falls on me. He lingers for a few seconds, as if searching his brain for context. He shrugs off his jacket and goes to the fridge.
“No beer?” He looks at Rosie.
“I didn’t have time to get to the liquor store. Sorry.”
“You got time now?”
She glances at me. “Yeah.” She goes to the closet for a jacket. “I’ll be back.”
“Can I go too?” Joey asks.
“You finish your homework?” Dickie asks.
I want to go with her, but she’s out the door and gone before I can speak up. Joey brings his books back to the table.
Dickie dives into his meal. “So, you’re . . .” The words hang in the air between us. Does he really not remember me?
“Lyla, Rosie’s sister.”
“Lyla. Good to meet you.”
“We’ve met before. A few times, in fact.”
“Yeah. Let me see. There was your wedding — I was the maid of honor; my wedding — your wife was the maid of honor; Joey’s christening — I’m his godmother.”
“My God, of course. Lyla. You’ve changed a lot.”
You haven’t. “Well, yeah. I guess that’s to be expected, what with my husband dying suddenly a year ago. You would have seen me then, if you’d bothered to come to the funeral.”
He places his fork on the plate. “Excuse me, then. I have a job, you know, at a law firm. I can’t just drop everything and take off.”
“Jesus, it’s not like you’re a lawyer. You’re a paralegal, Dickie. You flunked the bar exam, remember? What was it, twice? Or three times?”
He stands up slowly and moves toward me. “You’ve got a lot of nerve talking to me that way in my own house. Big shot professor. You think just because you’re Rosie’s sister you can stay here? Why don’t you go to a hotel? Or back to Philadelphia?”
So, he does remember me. Prick. “My husband was killed there a year ago tomorrow, and I need to be with my sister, the only family I've got left. So, get the fuck off my case. Sorry.” The last word is directed at Joey, sitting wide-eyed and motionless at the table.
I have to get away from Dickie before I do him bodily injury. I grab my jacket. “Tell Rosie I went for a walk.”
The streetlight on the corner is out, so I keep my eyes on the ground in front of me. Like someone who’d grown up blind, I recognize the neighborhood without seeing my surroundings. Rosie had settled three blocks from the house we grew up in, the house where Mom lived until she died. Mom was still there when Rosie and Dickie bought their house. She was thrilled to have her favorite daughter living so close. I grimace at that memory. Mom sorted people into categories and once placed, you remained there forever. So it happened, her two daughters were labeled early in life. “Rosemarie got the looks; Lyla got the brains.” And though Rosie wasn’t as dim nor I as plain as Mom decreed, her appraisals forever tainted our images of ourselves.
I stop in front of the lot where my childhood house used to stand. It was bought a few years earlier by a couple who fancied themselves flippers. The bones remained under the new veneer of shingles and stucco, an homage to whichever period the house belonged to. Despite their best efforts, and the city’s nod and wink to gentrification, the house never sold. I have to close my eyes to see it as I remembered it. The peeling white paint, dirt patches in the tiny yard, lopsided swing set, and clothesline are all gone. For a brief second, I think about buying the house. The moment passes and I move on.
It's late by the time I visit all my old haunts and turn back to Rosie’s. They’ll all be in bed when I get back; that’s the plan, anyway. But as I walk up the block, Dickie’s sitting on the steps, smoking. There’s no way to get to the door unless he moves.
“Rosie’s in bed. She waited for you, but she’s got an early day tomorrow, working at the festival.” He stands and steps aside.
“Yeah.” I need to say more. “Look, I’m sorry I got mad before.”
“Me too. I had a day, you know?” I accept his apology with a nod. “Rosie says you’re going to the festival tomorrow.”
“Sure. I was hoping to spend some time with Joey.” When he doesn’t respond, I add, “If that’s okay.” Did my politeness sound forced? Probably, but I don’t care.
“We can take him together.” He stubs out his cigarette on the concrete step and opens the screen door for me. “See you in the morning.”
Upstairs I see a light under the master bedroom door. I knock quietly in case she’s asleep. She says, “Come in.” I push the door open. Rosie’s in bed, watching TV. “Where the hell have you been? I was ready to send Rick out to look for you.”
I sit on the edge of the bed. “Good thing I came back before that happened.”
“Joey says you guys were fighting.”
“Just getting reacquainted.”
She smirks. “I heard you dropped an F-bomb.”
I smile. Little shit threw me under the bus. “That was just my . . . enthusiasm.” I get up to leave.
“See you tomorrow.” She turns off the TV.
Breakfast is over and Rosie is gone when I make it downstairs. Joey is on the couch watching TV; Dickie is absent.
“Where’s your dad?” I ask. Joey jumps, startled. “Sorry I got up so late. Have you been waiting for me?”
“Dad went with Mom to set up the First Aid tent. Mom’s working there today. He said to come over when you . . .” He looks down.
I smile. “What did he say? It’s okay.”
“When you haul your ass out of bed.” I laugh, partly to let him know it’s cool, and he laughs too.
The coffee in the kitchen is old, so I dump the pot. “I’ll get coffee and a pretzel there. Let’s go.”
The crowd is just starting to blossom. The First Aid tent is centrally located. Rosie already has a customer when we arrive, a little girl with a scraped knee. Rosie applies an Elmo Band-Aid and lets her choose a sticker, a reward for sitting still.
As the girl runs past us, Rosie lifts her head and waves. “Hey, it’s about time.”
“Where’s dad?” Joey asks. Rosie shrugs.
“I got up late,” I say. “Sorry.”
“No worries.” She pulls me away from her son. “You mind watching Joey for a while? Rick’s around somewhere . . .”
Joey looks at me. It’s clear he heard his mom’s comment.
“That’s why I came, duh.” I turn to him. “What should we do first?”
My nephew lets me get some breakfast, sweet kid. We stroll among the stalls and games. Ring toss, Skee-Ball, water-shooter thing. Lines are already forming to play the same games I’d played as a kid. Some things are eternal, I guess. A wave of nostalgia rolls over me. Or maybe it is déjà vu.
Joey plays a few games. He has some money Dickie gave him, but that runs out fast. Luckily, I brought plenty of cash. I hand him some dollar bills to buy ride tickets. The booth selling chances for the raffle is nearby, so I wander over and invest. Behind the booth, the food area is starting to attract customers. Dickie’s in line at the Ale Garden.
Joey returns with a fistful of tickets. “What do you want to ride first?” He practically vibrates with anticipation. I glance over at Dickie, then back to Joey.
“Let’s go say hi to your dad first. Maybe he’d like to ride.” Joey’s eyes droop, so I add, “We could get some fries, too.”
Dickie isn’t interested in rides. He gives some money to Joey, who insists on getting his own snack. I sit opposite Dickie at the picnic table.
“He’s a good kid,” I say. It’s an opening I’m fairly certain won’t lead to a fight.
“He is that.” He takes a swallow of beer.
“How long are you hanging around?”
“How long are you hanging around?” I’m momentarily struck dumb; I didn’t expect my question to be volleyed back at me. Was he asking about this afternoon, or beyond? “I’m only asking,” he says, “because Rosie texted. She got a call from the hospital. They got a few callouts and need her to go in at four.”
Joey is at the counter ordering food. I’m okay with having a day alone with him. At the same time, I don’t want Dickie to think I’m horning in on his father/son time. “I don’t mind watching Joey, if you have somewhere to be.” That seems like a safe answer.
“The festival is kind of our thing — Joey’s and mine.”
Joey comes back to the table with a hotdog and two orders of fries. “I got some for you too, Aunt Lyla.” He slides the fries over to me and sits next to his father. I burn my tongue on the first bite.
“So, I think I’m gonna check out the craft booths while you guys do rides,” I say.
“I thought you were gonna go on rides too.” He looks up at Dickie. “Aunt Lyla can go on rides with us, right?”
“Sure.” Dickie catches my eye. “That would be great.”
There is a total of six rides. Joey rides almost all of them twice, once with me, and once with Dickie. I beg off the teacups, which would make me hurl. At three o’clock we head over to the First Aid tent to touch base with Rosie. She’d be leaving soon for the shift she’d picked up at the hospital. She worked part time as an ER nurse, Dickie told me, but she usually didn’t work weekends. He doesn’t seem happy about her working this weekend, with me visiting, but the pay is good and they could use it. I wonder if she ever told him she’d always wanted to be a nurse, and how excited I was for her when she enrolled in nursing school. A woman should always have options.
We say goodbye to Rosie and promise not to keep Joey out too late. Joey shows no signs of tiring anytime soon. The three of us amble over to the games area. Dickie hands him a wad of bills. “Knock yourself out,” he says. Joey smiles and takes off.
“Want a beer?” Dickie asks. I look over at Joey. He’s found some friends to hang with.
“Wait here; I’ll get them.”
I’ve never had a drink with Dickie. Actually, we’d never spent much time just the two of us. Whenever we were alone a fight ensued. Dickie returns, beers in hand. I itch to join Joey and his friends.
The beer is watery and not quite cold enough. I take a sip and nod toward Joey. “You guys got lucky with that kid.”
“He’s not mine.” He drops it on me like it was nothing. “You knew, right? I assumed you knew.” I did know; I just didn’t know he knew.
“How long have you known?” I realize too late I’m admitting to being in on the secret.
“A few years. Rosie hit me with it during a fight. I’d already suspected, though. He doesn’t look anything like me. And neither of us has dark hair or brown eyes.”
It’s true. Joey’s biological father is a guy we’d grown up with. Joe DeMarco. That’s why Rosie insisted on naming him Joseph, though she said it was after our father. That’s where the “Joe Jr.” came from, sort of an inside joke. Rosie was dating Dickie when Joe DeMarco came along. Between classes and homework, law school took up most of Dickie’s time. Rosie was lonely; Joe was fun and available. She fell in love with him. I was sure she’d dump Dickie for Joe. In the end, she decided Dickie was the safe bet, which was confirmed when Joe went to prison for dealing drugs. When Rosie found out she was pregnant, she let Dickie think it was his. It was just easier that way.
The sun is slipping below the rooftops. I struggle to say something that won’t make things more uncomfortable. Nothing comes to me. We finish our beers and collect Joey.
I sit in the kitchen while Dickie makes up the couch for Joey. The kid’s exhausted. He had a great day. He hugs me before he goes upstairs. I fight back tears. I’m mad at myself, at the way I’d thought of Dickie all these years. I’d assumed the worst about him. I thought he was a dick. The truth was, I really didn’t know anything about him.
Joey climbs into his couch bed and Rick turns off the lights.
“You got anything stronger than beer?” I ask him.
He cocks his head and says, “Yeah, I think we do.” He opens the cabinet above the fridge and pulls out a bottle of Irish whisky. “Neat or on the rocks?”
We take our drinks outside and sit on the stoop. The air has cooled considerably, which is normal for springtime in New England. The whisky burns going down.
“Rick,” I dive in, “I’ve been unfair to you.”
“Oh? How so?”
How could I explain? I thought he was a jerk, self-centered and opinionated. Maybe he was all that. But there was a lot more there.
“I misjudged you.” Try again. “I made assumptions about you based on limited information.”
He took a sip and nodded. “Well-said, Professor.” I smirk at this. “But, you know, I think I might be guilty of the same about you.”
“Rosie told me once you’ve always been the smart one. You got the PhD, became a professor. She got knocked up and married me. I think she envied your life. I felt a little threatened by you.”
“I didn’t know she felt that way. I mean, about me being the smart one. You know that came from our mother, right? Did she also tell you she was the pretty one? How do you think that made me feel?”
He laughs. “Your mother was a pisser.”
My glass is empty. Rick uncaps the bottle and refills it.
“Did finding out about Joey . . . affect . . .”
“How I feel about him? No. I was hurt, and mad at Rosie for not being straight with me. But I couldn’t ask for a better son. When he looks at me, he sees his dad, so that’s what I am.”
“Ah,” he refills his glass, “that’s a tougher question. I love her, but . . . It’s a work in progress. We made a vow, and we’re living it.” He takes a sip. “A deal’s a deal.”
Tears fill my eyes. The last person I’d expected to move me to tears was this guy sitting next to me. I put my head in my hands, trying to hide my emotions.
“Lyla,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
I shake my head. “No reason to be sorry.”
“No, I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t come to Adam’s funeral.” He puts his hand under my chin and gently lifts my head. His eyes are blue; I knew they were blue, but I’ve never seen them this close before. Like the sky on a perfect summer day. The alcohol is making me sappy and . . . something else.
Then I kiss him. Or he kisses me. Maybe both. It happens without planning or consideration of consequences. And it goes on too long. Things start happening in other places.
Jesus, help me.
We pull away at the same time. My cheeks burn with shame, but he looks confused, like he doesn’t understand what just happened.
I stand up. “It’s been a long day.” I reach for the door.
“Wait. Something just happened —”
“Nothing happened. Goodnight.”
I wake up the next morning to an empty house. I can already smell the beef braising in the crock pot. Mass in the morning, followed by some sort of roast for dinner. I’d abandoned this Sunday ritual long ago. Rosie kept it alive for the sake of Joey and Rick. Maybe I just needed a family to make it mean something.
The train station is deserted. I might be the only one waiting for the ten fifty-seven train to Philadelphia. Leaving without a goodbye wasn’t part of the plan, and a knot of shame in my gut serves as my punishment.
I’m watching the doors, half expecting Rosie to march through them and drag me back. Instead, the minute hand arcs toward ten-fifty and a voice announcing my train echoes in the empty station. As I walk down to the platform, my cellphone buzzes. It’s Rick.
I let it go to voicemail.
Leslie Martinelli earned an MA in Writing from Rowan University. Her work has been published in Glassworks, the literary journal of the Rowan University Writing Arts Department. She is a former lawyer and was a teacher of composition at Rowan University.
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