It was not the first time my father’s nose had been bloodied.
The punch was a surprise left jab from Frankie, a kid built like a St. Bernard. He lived just around the corner and was a regular on Friday nights when Dad’s buddies got together to box in the basement of my father’s boyhood home, a red brick house at the bottom of the hill. My father and his friends—just barely teenagers—tied clothesline to the cellar’s pillars to form a big square, placed chairs in the corners of the uneven cement floor, and used a saucepan and wooden spatula to bang out the beginning and end of each round. The boys had two sets of black leather boxing gloves, cracked from age, and they’d tie them up on their fists and beat the crap out of each other. There was nearly always blood from a split lip, frequent scratches, and maybe a drop of plasma from a nostril. But my father had never been hit this squarely in the face, and this time there was a stream of red running from Dad’s nose and into his mouth.
Dad often told this story or stories like it, stories about his boxing days, usually a tale about a fight with Frankie, and all the wild and violent punches. He would go on about how Frankie wanted to stop the fight but how Dad wanted to keep swinging.
With blood on his face, Dad raised his gloves again and Frankie raised his. Dad threw a right and Frankie ducked. Frankie tried an uppercut but missed. My father swiveled to his left and falling away, landed a left to Frankie’s ear, momentarily knocking him off balance. Dad threw a quick right and struck Frankie’s jaw. The punch threw him to the floor. Standing above him, my father wiped away blood from his nose with one of the gloves and then tapped his gloves together and began to rock back and forth, adrenaline powering his boxer’s dance.
Frankie looked up from the floor. “I’m done. No more,” he said.
Another boy banged the spatula on the pan. The match was over.
Most every one of his friends knew my father could throw a good punch, but what they didn’t know was his other, less masculine talent. Dad was a wonderful artist. This wasn’t something he liked to talk about. Only one of Dad’s schoolteachers and his mother were aware of his natural ability. He never took a lesson. Dad drew from the heart. He once used a simple No. 2 pencil to sketch pheasants and deer on the walls of his bedroom, and his mother for years afterward carefully painted around the drawings whenever she freshened up the room with a new coat. On butcher paper from the meat market, Dad drew charcoal portraits of boxers. Some in profile, others in the ring, gloves in the air. His buddies knew about the drawings, but Dad never admitted they were his. “They’re my brother’s,” he’d tell his friends. “He thinks he’s going to be a Rembrandt.” Dad’s friends would pretend to know who Rembrandt was.
After the boys were done boxing in the basement, Dad and his cronies came upstairs to listen to the matches broadcast on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. While the city choked on the soot and grime of the steel mills, and men wheezed their way into the taprooms to listen to the same live broadcast, the boys took their seats in front of the big console radio in the living room. My father’s favorite, Billy Conn, the Pittsburgh Kid, was not fighting that night, but Dad wished he had been. Conn was his hero, the Irishman with the chiseled Hollywood face, the lightweight champ who took on the great Joe Louis, headstrong and battling through to the 13th round, smelling salts propping him up. Conn had the tenacity to believe he could beat anyone and my father believed Conn was Superman. Conn did not win his match with Louis, but that didn’t matter. It was his resolve, his doggedness that attracted my father and so many others in the brawny steel town. Conn had only been knocked down twice in his career. He was a man who even when he wobbled, found a way to square up and return to deliver a hard left hand to his opponent.
“Who’s fighting tonight?” asked one of Dad’s friends.
“Montgomery,” Dad said in his now nasally voice. He had a ball of toilet paper stuck up his nose to ease what was left of the bleeding.
“He up against Beau Jack?” another asked.
Montgomery was a Pennsylvania guy. But Jack was the favorite in this match. Montgomery had beaten Jack once before. However, in a rematch, Jack had knocked him out.
“I’m for Monty,” my father said. “He’s got more guts.”
“Yeah, but Jack is the greatest lightweight ever,” one of the friends said.
“Everyone loses sooner or later,” Dad said, taking the crimson-colored tissue from his nostril, wiping his forearm across his nose, and sniffling back clotted blood.
My father lived in the last house on the street before the woods took over. Sometimes he and his older brother would hunt in those woods, shooting rabbits, birds, and squirrels with a BB gun or .22 rifle. They lived with their mother and aunt, his mother’s older sister. Their father had left two years before, not long after Dad started boxing in the basement. His father walked to his car one morning and drove away. There had been arguments with his mother and there were rumors of an affair with the neighbor lady, the mother of one of my father’s one-time boxing buddies. The two boys never talked about it, even though others did. There were times Dad and his friend had found each other in the ring together but when Dad’s father left for good, the friend never returned, never boxed in the basement again.
The radio crackled. The announcers bellowed. The boys fell silent and stared at the speaker, hypnotized. For the next hour, Dad lay on the floor on his belly, his elbows resting his hands to his chin, imagining the punches, the sweat and the blood. He loved the art of the fight, the controlled violence. For him there was glory and beauty in the battle. The combination was comforting. For a fourteen-year-old boy who would soon be asked to become a man, to save his fatherless family, to carry the load, comfort was to be savored, even if it was draped in ferocity and flying fists, even if the fights to come might be bloodier than any of the basement boxing matches.
There was a photo album in the drawer of the dresser next to his mother’s bed. In one picture my father is standing with a fishing rod next to his father. Dad is about six years old. He’s smiling and squinting into the sun. His father is dressed in a white T-shirt, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. His expression is stern, almost blank. On the opposite page of the album is another photo. It’s around the same time, same age. Norman is shirtless, wearing only shorts. He’s looking into the camera; his fists are in the defensive pose of a boxer, up around his face. He’s scowling.
“Which picture is the real you?” his mother once asked.
“Both,” Dad said.
After Dad’s father left, his mother didn’t look at the album much.
“Don’t you wish we could see this fight?” Frankie asked as the voices on the radio proclaimed the winner of the match, Montgomery in the 10th. “Even just some pictures.”
“The Milbauers have a television,” Dad said. “But I don’t think they show the fights.”
“Let’s take our own,” Frankie said.
My father ran to get the family camera from the cabinet in the hallway. He fiddled with the knobs, uncertain if there was film inside.
“You remember how to work it?” Frankie asked.
Dad was unsure.
“See if you can get it going,” Frankie said. “I’ll be Jack. You be Montgomery.”
After a few minutes, Dad was certain he’d figured out the camera. He showed another one of the friends how to look through the viewfinder, where to push the button.
Frankie ran to the basement to get the gloves. He slipped one pair on as he threw the other pair to my father. The boys stood close and put up their dukes. Frankie sneered and Dad showed his teeth, snarling like an alley dog.
“Point the camera,” Dad said through his teeth. “Take it.”
Dad snatched the camera from his friend and advanced the lever. “One more time,” he said.
My father and Frankie returned to their poses.
“When can you get the film developed?” Frankie asked.
“I’ll have to ask my mom,” Dad said.
‘You think they really looked like that?” Frankie asked, considering the poses they had struck.
“Of course they did,” Dad said. “Mean and nasty.”
“Like they wanted to beat the shit out of someone,” Frankie said.
“Shhh,” Dad sighed.
“Your mom can’t hear us in here,” Frankie said. “She’s in the kitchen, smoking.” The boys could smell the fresh lighting of a Parliament.
“Just don’t say that,” my father insisted, his Catholicism coming out.
Dad, his mother, and aunt attended mass at St. Sylvester’s Catholic Church every Sunday morning. Norman’s mother wore a bonnet and white gloves. His aunt carried an old leather Jerusalem Bible. Dad wore a white shirt and black tie. My father hated wearing those clothes and he hated going to church. But his family was Irish. The Irish went to church.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” Frankie whispered.
The other boys giggled.
“Young men!” Dad’s mother hollered from the kitchen. “Getting a little rambunctious in there.”
My father glared at his friends.
“I think it’s time to head home,” his mother said.
“But all the fights aren’t over yet,” Dad pleaded.
His mother was now standing at the entranceway to the kitchen. “There will be other Friday nights.”
Dad turned off the radio and walked his buddies to the front door. It was sad to watch them go.
Three strays in one week.
The first was an old tabby cat with a nick out of its tail. Her father would have none of it, however, and tossed the cat from the second-floor back porch over the railing and into the woods. “No damn cats,” he snapped. He tolerated my mother’s love of wayward animals, but he wasn’t about to allow any cats in his home. The second was a scrawny mutt with coarse gray and black hair covering its eyes. Mom’s father seemed to like him and fed him some chicken parts in a soup dish on the kitchen floor, but the dog didn’t stick around and was gone the next morning. The third stray appeared to be a mix between a Boston bull terrier and a beagle, a combination doomed for awkwardness.
“He’ll do, if no one claims him,” her father said. “And that’s the only way it goes.”
“What if someone does want him back?” my mother asked.
“Then we give him back. What if it was your dog?”
“But I really like him.”
“He probably has a home somewhere,” her father said, sipping from a can of Duquesne beer, a hometown pilsner made at a brewery near the Monongahela River. “Still, he has no collar and no tag. We’ll see what your mother says.”
Mom stroked the dog’s back as it gnawed chicken gristle and slurped small pieces of fat.
“Hell, he probably hasn’t had anything that good in a long while,” her father said, taking another taste of beer.
Stories like this one were common. My mother was unable to leave animals alone. Any dog or cat left to its own on the streets was hers. Collars and tags did not matter. Ownership did not matter. She’d spot the animal on her walk from school, find herself petting it, and soon carrying it or calling it to follow her home. She thought of herself as a pied piper, a rescuer. But mostly it was a selfish act. She once had her own dog, a mix of spaniel and Labrador. Tippy was its name. It died of distemper.
“When he’s done here, put a leash on him and walk him around the block,” her father insisted. “Let’s see if he’s lost.”
My mother nodded reluctantly. She’s been asked before to do this.
“Here,” her father said, handing her a tattered black leash that had been hanging on the knob of the door to the basement since Tippy died.
Mom put the leash around the dog’s neck and twisted the long end through the clasp to secure it.
“Come on, Mickey,” she said.
“You’ve named him already?” her father asked. “Don’t get too attached.”
My mother walked the dog through the small dining room and living area and out the door to the front porch. She stood on the top of the three cement steps heading toward the sidewalk.
“You got another one?” Jacqueline, her sister, was in the yard with a friend, making yellow bouquets from the dandelions in the lawn.
“Yep,” Gloria said proudly.
Jacqueline had been just as much a dognapper as Gloria. One time she hid a beagle mix in the home’s coal cellar. She stuffed food from the dinner table under her shirt and snuck it to the dog until her mother heard its muffled bark. There was an unspoken competition between Gloria and Jacqueline. Which one could rescue the most strays?
“That’s not smart,” Jacqueline said, scolding her. “It’s someone else’s dog, you know? You shouldn’t have it. It’s not yours.” She was repeating a lesson she had learned after her mother had found the beagle.
“Maybe it is,” Gloria said. “Maybe no one wants him.”
Jacqueline looked at her friend and they giggled.
Mom guided the dog down the steps to the street. When the road dipped and curved, and she was out Jacqueline’s sight, she abandoned the sidewalk and turned to the woods along a dirt path toward a small stream. She sat behind a large wild cherry tree and held the dog close, eventually pulling it onto her lap.
“Good boy, Mickey,” she whispered. “Good boy.”
My mother stayed there until she heard her father’s sharp whistle to come home for dinner.
Mom’s mother had made thinly cut pork chops, fried in ketchup and onions in an iron skillet. It was one of her father’s favorite dishes.
“Can we give him the bones?” Gloria asked her.
“I don’t see why not,” her mother said.
“Dogs shouldn’t eat pork bones,” her father said. “Too soft. They splinter. They’ll choke”
“It’s okay,” her mother said to Mom. “We’ll find him something else.”
“Did you walk him along Hazelhurst Street? On Willet Road, too?” her father asked.
My mother nodded.
“No takers?” her father asked.
Mom shook her head.
Jacqueline crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “She didn’t walk him anywhere,” she said. “She sat in the woods the whole time.”
“Gloria?” Her mother stopped clearing the table and stood before her daughter.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” her father barked, pounding a fist on the table. His beer can wobbling, nearly tipping over. “What the hell are we going to do with you? Goddamn it!”
Her father stood from the table and pushed back his chair. “Where is the damn dog? I’ll do it myself.” He marched into the kitchen and found the dog resting on a pile of old towels Gloria had fashioned into a bed.
“The dog has a home somewhere, you know?” he huffed, carrying the dog in his arms. He glared at my mother. “You just can’t go around stealing dogs.” He snatched the keys to his Jeep from the small table in the entranceway and left, the wooden screen door slapping the doorjamb as he exited.
My mother’s home sat on the knoll where the street dipped down the hill, about a tenth of a mile from my father’s home. It too was brick, but Mom’s home was a two-flat, one floor on top of the other with a small basement. Her English grandmother, her father’s mother, lived upstairs. She was old and spoke with a heavy accent. On the first floor, Mom shared a small bedroom with her sister. Her parents’ room was next to theirs. Her mother worked part-time at the Hilton Hotel in the city, selling cigarettes and cigars. Her father drove a truck for the city’s biggest grocer, Kroger. When the government began rationing during the war, Mom’s father sometimes slipped a few extra pounds of butter in his Jeep. He knocked on neighbors’ doors and left butter boxes on their stoops. He thought they didn’t know who was sneaking them the butter, but they did. He did the same with bags of sugar.
Mom’s father returned without the dog.
“Whose was it?” her mother asked.
“Family on Church View Avenue,” he said, walking past his wife and into the kitchen. “They don’t deserve him,” he added, opening the refrigerator to grab a beer.
“What do you mean?”
“I told them the dog needs to see a vet and that I’d be back for it if they didn’t do something about it.”
“Is it sick?”
“Dog’s got fleas and there’s a sore on its belly. I’m sure you saw that eye? It’s swollen and red,” he said, using an opener on the beer can.
She nodded toward the girls’ bedroom.
When my mother heard the knock on the door, she knew it was her father.
“The dog is back home,” he said.
“Okay.” Mom was on her bed, her head in a book.
“He seemed happy,” he said.
“I hope so,” Mom said, still not looking up.
Her father paused, placed the open beer can on a tall dresser, and moved closer. He placed a hand under her chin and tilted her head back so her eyes were on his. “You can’t save them all.”
“Okay,” she said.
“No more,” he said.
“No more, Daddy.”
Dad’s mother placed a wooden chair in the middle of the kitchen and told him to sit.
“How long is this going to take?” he asked. Dad was dressed in dungarees and a white tee shirt, the clothes he always wore to school.
His mother pointed at the chair with a long tapered black comb, keeping her eyes on her son. “Just sit. You are way overdue.”
Dad dropped in the seat and crossed his arms.
“But don’t I get a haircut when school starts, not when it ends?” he asked. There was about a week left in the school year.
Dad’s mother draped a towel around his neck and dipped the comb into a clear glass of water to dampen it. “It’s getting hotter. You’re sweating.” She stood behind him and moved the comb through his thick auburn hair from the forehead to his crown.
“I’m going to miss the guys,” he said.
The sun of the early June morning shone through the window and onto Dad’s Jeepers, a hand-me-down pair from his brother, a gift from their uncle who had money. The shoes were scuffed around the toes, the white trim now gray, and the black canvas on the right shoe torn. Norman wiggled his feet to watch the sun reflect off the metal grommets.
“Can I get new shoes?” my father asked.
Dad could hear the slice of the scissors close to his right ear. A clump of wet hair fell to his shoulders.
“Your shoes are fine,” his mother said without looking at them. “Don’t move around so much.”
She snipped another clump of hair. It landed on the black and white tiled floor.
“But they’re old,” he said.
“Are there holes in them? No.”
More hair dropped from Dad’s head.
“I walk up and down the hills, Mom. Everyday. My feet hurt.”
“We’ll get you some thick socks,” she said. “Hold still.” She wet the comb and ran it along the side of my father’s head just above the left ear.
Dad delivered The Pittsburgh Press every afternoon and again on Sunday mornings. He had had the paper route for several years, over a hundred customers. He knew every house, the names of the people in them, who had dogs and who didn’t, and which ones were most likely to bite. My father had been nipped a number of times over the years, twice by the same dog. Dad had a way with dogs, but not all of them.
“Mom, are you done?” He saw the wall clock above the stove. “I gotta go.”
“Hold on,” his mother said. She clipped the hair around the back of his neck, stepped away to look at her work, snipped one last unruly strand, and placed the scissors on the kitchen table. “Okay. That’ll do.”
Dad flipped the towel from his shoulders and quickly stood, brushing away the locks that had landed on his lap. He then tilted forward, and shook his head.
“Book bag,” his mother reminded him.
Dad snatched the canvas bag from the hook on the basement door and rushed out the back door.
“Bye,” she said, standing at the screen door, watching my father run past the two large maples in the yard and hurdle the stone steps to the street.
My mother sat quietly on the front cement porch steps, reading and waiting for her friends. She had borrowed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from the library the week before. There was another book in her school bag, The Boxcar Children, which she had started a couple of days ago, but she now was captivated with the other.
“Do you have your lunch?” her father asked, standing on the porch behind her, ready to leave for work. He lit a cigarette.
“I do,” my mother said.
“You girls need a ride?”
He moved past her to the walkway toward the gravel driveway and his Jeep.
“Get your head out of the book now and then, will you?”
My mother smiled. “It’s a good story,” she said.
Her father laughed. “They’re all good stories,” he said, blowing smoke out the corner of his mouth. He waved from the Jeep as he backed it out to the street and Mom watched as he drove up the hill, the Jeep lurching as he shifted gears.
Two of Gloria’s friends stood on the opposite side of the street near the corner and the sewer drain.
“Come on!” one of them shouted, the other waving her hand.
The two girls wore plaid skirts and white blouses. They weren’t identical outfits; the girls were not attending Catholic school, but simply dressed in the fashion of the day. My mother wore the same. The two girls had their hair pulled back in ponytails, but Mom’s dark brown hair hung loose to her shoulders, a blue headband tied in a bow on top of her head and just behind her ears. She was as thin as a novella, like her mother.
My mother finished the last sentence of the paragraph and dog-eared the page. She grabbed her school bag and stood, straightened her skirt, and adjusted her hairband.
“Why do you never see us?” the one girl asked as she crossed the street.
“We always have to call you,” the other said.
“Sorry,” Mom said. She only meant it a little.
The girls walked together up the hill, past the other brick houses, past the fire hydrant, and the yard with all the tulips, and a neighbor’s barking terrier. They talked about how last week Sister Mary had rapped a boy’s hand with a ruler after he didn’t stop talking during reading time.
“It was the boy from down the street who got punished,” one of them said.
“The one with the black hair and the broken front teeth?” my mother asked.
She was thinking of the one who was always in trouble.
“No,” the other girl said. “That red-haired kid.”
There were two. One had hair of orange and freckles. The other was my father. Auburn. No freckles.
“I don’t know their names,” Mom said. “Just to see.”
The girls stopped at the intersection at the top of the hill and looked both ways, their heads moving in unison.
“It wasn’t the Berner kid. That’s Norman,” the first girl said. “It was the other one.”
Over their shoulders, the girls heard sudden bursts of laughter. Norman and his boxing buddies were hurrying up the street, knocking hard into one another like boys do. Frankie, his boxing buddy, snatched another boy’s cap from his head and tossed it to my father.
One of the girls rolled her eyes.
“Not him, right?” the other girl asked, nodding her head toward my father.
“No, no.” the first girl whispered. “He gets in trouble for other stuff, drawing in class, making pictures when he’s supposed to be listening.”
Norman shook the stolen cap just out of the boy’s reach.
“Come and get it! Come and get it!” my father barked.
The boy leapt at him and Dad tossed the cap over his head and back to Frankie.
“What’s his name?” my mother asked.
“Like I said, Norman,” the first girl said.
“Not Robert?” the other girl wondered.
“No, no,” the first girl said, “That’s his brother. He’s older. He was in the war. Flew an airplane or something.”
Frankie flung the cap over the boy’s outstretched arms and back to my father, but Dad missed it and it fell to the street. All three boys jumped for it, wrestling for the cap.
The girls were on the far corner now, watching the boys roll around on the bricks.
“What are you looking at?” Frankie snapped.
“Oh, shut up,” one girl said. “Stupid boys.”
“Come on,” the other girl said and started walking away, her friend following.
But my mother stood at the corner and continued watching the boys tussle. She heard huffing and puffing under the flurry of arms and legs. When they stood and looked at one another, the cap was back in its owner’s hands.
“You guys are shits,” the boy grumbled, slapping the cap back on his head.
Frankie put his arm around Norman’s shoulder. “We’re shits, you know that?”
“Shits, we are!” Dad said.
Then came a voice from behind them. “You got a haircut.”
All three turned.
“Your hair. It’s shorter,” my mother said, still standing at the corner.
My father brushed his hair straight back from his forehead. “Yeah,” he said. “So what?”
“It looks nice,” Mom said. She adjusted her schoolbag on her shoulder and turned to hurry toward her friends now a half block away.
“You like her?” Frankie asked.
“I don’t even know her,” my father muttered. “Shut up.”
“That’s the girl in the house with the cement steps,” Frankie said.
“I know that,” Dad said.
“Thought you said you didn’t know her?” Frankie asked.
“I don’t know her name,” my father insisted.
Frankie stood in the street and walked around Dad, studying the top and sides of his head.
“You did get a snipping,” Frankie said. “And you still look like a girl.”
“It’s all those beautiful waves,” the other boy smirked. “Such beautiful waves you have.”
“Eat dog dirt,” Dad muttered.
The boys laughed the rest of the way to school.
This is how it was when Norman and Gloria were young. They lived among the rust and grit of a city cloaked in the haze of iron ore, where nearly everyone worked for industrialists named Mellon and Carnegie and Phipps, and came home at the end of the day to tidy homes and cold beer. Hard work surrounded them. Pride was the city’s foundation. It was a tough town. No one backed down from anything. You did what was right. You did your job. You went to church. You helped your neighborhood. You defended principles, your family, and your home. Life was like a Norman Rockwell painting in many ways. The clichés of those feel-good 1940s films were built from the realities of neighborhoods like this one. Steel built the city and it built the people. Norman and Gloria would never work a day in a mill but they were as strong and sturdy and true as the beams that rolled out from the big plants by the rivers.
But Pittsburgh was not only a mill town; it was a city in the woods, nestled in Pennsylvania’s lower left-hand corner, wrapped inside leafy hills and muddy rivers, the kind of land French and British explorers had found promising for trapping and timber, land they had stolen from Native Americans who had lived there as hunters and gathers for centuries. That history was all around Norman and Gloria, but they were less like the frontiersmen who occupied the land or the laborers who worked for steel barons, and more like the Shawnee, the natives of Southwest Pennsylvania who lived by the rising and setting of the seasonal sun. Norman and Gloria, like those original Americans, lived in the quadrants of the day—morning, noon, afternoon, and night—often outside, often with their tribe of friends. Despite growing up in a neighborhood that sat only seven miles from the nearest steel mill, my parents in their young lives drew in the ancient air of another time. They lived with less steel and more earth and sky. It came naturally, like how they had found each other, without structure or intent. There were consequences to living in a city like Pittsburgh, the hard realities of a mill town. People tended to default to the patterns of the fathers and mothers before them—live on the same streets, go to the same bakers, butchers and churches. But in the sky above them were millions of stars and they produced their own consequences. One could wish upon them every night, giving Norman and Gloria a license to dream. He wanted to be an artist. She wanted to write books. In a steel town, dreaming may have been an impractical enterprise but those dreams were always there among the heavenly lights.
In the days after their first encounter, Norman and Gloria would say hello to one another on the way to school, depending on how self-conscious either might have been at any time. Norman pretended not to notice Gloria in the busy school hallway, but other times, usually when he was alone and without his friends to judge him, he would meet her eyes. Once he asked if she had brought home any dogs lately. The stories of Gloria’s dognapping had made the rounds. Gloria smiled when he asked that question.
Norman and his friends played baseball in the street and the neighborhood, and the girls would watch, making fun of the boys who couldn’t catch or hit, and quietly encouraging those they thought were cute. Gloria was there sometimes, but mostly she sat on her stoop and read, glancing at the game when she’d hear bat meet ball.
In time, Gloria grew taller, her hair thicker. Norman grew too, both up and out. He made the school football team and the regimen widened his shoulders, his calves were bigger, his head appeared larger, his hair wavier, and with those changes came confidence.
“You like ice cream?” Norman asked after a Friday night game.
“Who doesn’t?” Gloria said.
They walked to Friend’s Dairy. Norman bought two cones. Hers was vanilla. His was chocolate. They sat together on the bench outside the diary store for a long time.
They began taking drives in Norman’s car, a 1934 Buick with holes in the floor and questionable brakes, one he bought with the money from all those delivered newspapers. Gloria read stories to him from her books and Norman showed her his drawings, one of a hawk in flight she very much liked. And one winter morning, Norman knocked on Gloria’s door, wearing a fur-lined cap with straps that covered the ears. He carried wooden snow skis.
“Would you like to go on cemetery hill?” Norman asked, his cheeks red, his eyes eager, his heavy coat checkered back and red.
Gloria wrapped her arms across her chest to fight the cold. “I’ve never skied before,” she said.
“Come on,” Norman encouraged.
Gloria hesitated. “Just stay here. I’ll ask.” Her eyes had already said yes, no matter what her mother or father might say.
The snow was somewhat icy on the hill above the cemetery, so it was difficult for Norman to keep his normal balance and agility. Still, he did not fall. Gloria, however, fell several times, tumbling into the snow, laughing and giggling to protect herself from the joyous terror of sliding on wooden boards down what might as well have been a mountain. Norman held her hands to glide her; he held her waist to steady her. He told her she could do it. He told her she would be okay.
In the months ahead, Norman and Gloria would walk again to the diary for ice cream and share Cokes in bottles from the machine at the gas station; they would flirt at their school lockers and cuddle on the bench outside the football stadium. They would dance to “Peg o’ My Heart” and laugh and they would kiss. And soon, they would share secrets. Norman told Gloria how his mother insisted he take tap dancing lessons as a young boy and how he had taught himself the ukulele but was too intimidated to play in front of anyone. He told her how his father had always appeared angry and tired, and how even when he left and a heavy veil was lifted from the house, Norman was still sad. Gloria told Norman how sick she had been when she was eight years old. Whooping cough. How she coughing spells had made her vomit. How her parents had been afraid she’d die. She told him how she didn’t like it when her father drank too much beer, and how she wished for a house full of dogs, and how she wanted to write, but was afraid to put words on paper. Over several months, they became very close. Then, when Norman was about to enter his last year of high school, his mother pulled him out. His mother had tried hard to find odd jobs to support the family since Norman’s father left, but it was no longer enough. Norman would have to go to work. He found a job building homes.
The first time my father stepped across the framed roof of a new house, he moved with calculated caution. He placed his work boots—heel to toe—on the edge of 2x4s and used his arms to balance his strides, the way a high-wire artist did but with less confidence. After a few months, his advances became big and bold and he looked to the ground only to eye a fellow carpenter ready to hand him lumber or toss a hammer. I could do this for a long time, he thought. Maybe I could support a life? Maybe I could ask Gloria to marry me? My mother was a year behind my father. She had two more years of high school and she was certain she would graduate. So Norman would keep working, save his money, and wait.
One afternoon, Gloria was released early from school. She was sick. It was not a cold. Not the flu. She had been coughing, a harsh and deep cough. Once she coughed up blood. Over the period of a few weeks, she had lost nearly ten pounds, a lot for her thin frame. Her cheeks were sallow and her arms spindly. She was fatigued. Her mother took her to the family doctor.
“How do you catch tuberculosis?” Gloria asked.
“It in the air,” the doctor told her. “People have the bacteria. Microscopic droplets around us.”
The doctor asked if her mother, father, or other relatives had similar symptoms.
“It is highly contagious,” the doctor said. “And, young lady, it can be very dangerous.”
Children with TB were not always expected to live.
“There are antibiotics, but they don’t always work,” the doctor continued. “I suggest long-term care at a hospital.”
My mother did not understand.
“It’s called a sanatorium. The Pittsburgh Tuberculosis Hospital. It’s in the Hill District,” he explained. “It’s the best for you and everyone around you.” Her sister, father and mother, and Norman would certainly have to be tested.
“How long?” Gloria asked.
“Long enough to make you better,” he said.
What the doctor didn’t tell my mother was that the floors were cold and the windows heavily curtained and the metal beds dressed in stark white linens, lining the sterile and shadowy communal sleeping rooms, were like ghosts standing in a long row. He didn’t tell her that some who were admitted never came out.
“When?” she asked.
“Pack some clothes and I will check on an available bed.”
In three days, my mother was admitted.
Norman’s orders came in a simple sealed envelope. He was to report to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and join thousands of other young men on the base where soldiers tested ammunition, big and small. On his arrival, he would immediately hear the snap and blast of weapons rattling over 100 square miles of land. It would be unnerving. But the echoes would eventually become a common element of the auditory landscape. Still, my father would never get used to it.
“I have to go,” Norman told Gloria. He wore a white surgical mask over his mouth and nose, a requirement to enter the sanatorium. Gloria sat on the edge of her bed beside him, her pillow on her lap, her arms wrapped tightly around it.
“They are orders. Orders are orders,” he said. Norman put his arm around Gloria, lightly touching the small of her back.
“When?” she asked.
It would be two months.
“And when can you come home again?”
Norman didn’t know.
“Do you have to go overseas?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know where I’ll end up.”
In a few weeks, my father would pack a single duffel bag and board the Greyhound at Penn Station that would take him the six hours to Maryland and the U.S. Army. And my mother would continue to lose weight, swallow antibiotics, and find a way to build a daily life behind the sealed walls of the sanatorium.
My mother sat behind a console of knobs and switches. Two turntables were set on a wooden base just to her right. The microphone was on a small boom stand and it could be adjusted up and down to satisfy the person who sat before it. The radio station was closed-circuit, its range no more than the hospital and its grounds. The station was on the air a few hours each day, beginning at two in the afternoon with a break at dinnertime and then back on the air in the evening for a couple of hours. The maintenance crew at the hospital kept it running, but patients could have their own shows if they wanted. My mother had hers.
“That’s ‘Night and Day’ from Frank Sinatra,” Gloria announced as the turntable’s needle played the final notes. “Hi, everyone. This is Gloria and I hope the music is making your day.”
There was little Gloria had to learn—a couple of on/off switches and volume controls. It was no more complicated than her parents’ console radio. Her show was far from slick, her speech was somewhat tentative, but the tone was sincere and she was comfortable talking into the microphone as long as there was music to play. Some of the patients who had radio shows talked a great deal, telling stories, jokes, reading from the Bible and reciting prayers. One who hosted a Sunday show made it a point each week to honor those who had died at the hospital, solemnly announcing their names over the air.
“We had a nice sunny day today and maybe you were able to go outside for a while,” Gloria said into the microphone. “The weather tomorrow is also supposed to be lovely. But I know some of you can only watch it from the window.” She placed the needle on the record and it crackled over the airwaves. “I always loved this song and I hope you do, too.”
Harry James was one of her father’s favorites, and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” was one he would whistle around the house. Gloria missed that and when her parents would come to visit, she would ask her father to whistle the song he loved. And at the end of every radio show, Gloria played “Peg o’ My Heart” for “someone special in Maryland.”
The music of her radio show and reading books from the small hospital library helped my mother endure the eighteen months she spent in the sanatorium. The future looked grim at first. She was on bed rest and the X-rays were not good. But very slowly Gloria made progress, building strength, defying the doctors’ prognoses, her body disregarding the odds. Hope, spirit, prayer—whatever it was—helped her find a way out. She was one of the few; one of the lucky ones. In the beginning when all appeared impossible and then as she showed improvement, her parents were always there, visiting several times a week. Norman sent long letters from Maryland and traveled while on leave to see her. He’d sit on her bed, she’d read to him, he’d tell stories of his Army duties and draw her pictures, and they’d talk about what they were going to do when Gloria was well enough to go home.
“Will you marry me?” Norman asked.
My mother and father had their personal dreams, but they never saw them as the reason to forsake the kind of life and home they had always known. On a single block a few miles over the valley from the steel mills along the Monongahela River, a young man had used boxing and beautiful images on his bedroom wall to help him forget about his absent father. In this neighborhood, a young woman fell in love with animals and words, and fostered the strength to conquer a deadly illness. In the space of less than a half-mile, my father and mother met, courted, and fused their love. And when the Army sent my father 300 miles away to test ammunition and my mother’s disease forced her into isolation, their ties to home only grew stronger. Dad never honestly believed becoming a famous artist was his destiny and Mom would eventually realize that writing the great American novel was someone else’s fantasy. Instead, my mother and father reached out to what they most trusted and tightly held to what they believed was genuine—family, neighborhood, and each other.
Five months after my mother was released from the hospital and my father was on weekend leave for the Memorial Day holiday, they said their vows during a Catholic ceremony at St. Albert the Great Church. Dad wore a white tuxedo jacket. Mom wore a veil of lace. His father did not attend but his mother was by his side. Her mother wore a wide-brimmed hat that the breeze kept knocking from her head. Her father cried as he gave her away. Several months later, Dad would be discharged from the Army and return to his job building houses. Mom would be eating better, have much of her youthful energy back, and would be putting on weight, slowly filling out her thin frame. And soon Norman and Gloria would consider moving into a small apartment above her parents’ home and think about a child they could raise on the same street where they grew up.
David W. Berner is currently the Writer-in-Residence at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois, and was previously honored as the Writer-in-Residence at The Kerouac Project in Orlando.
Berner is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster, and teacher in Chicago. His latest book is due out in late April from Roundfire Books. October Song is his third memoir. October Song has been called “beautifully authentic” by Windy City Reviews. Berner’s first book, Accidental Lessons, was awarded the Golden Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature and Any Road Will Take You There was named one of the best books of the year by the Chicago Writers Association.