What I remember about when I was a kid in the south Bronx is that my pop was too poor to rent us a bungalow at Rockaway during the hot summers, so we just stayed home. We had the kind of summers where you could see the heat rising from the streets. It looked kind of blurry. No matter how much you breathed in, you still felt like you weren’t getting any air. It was hot outside and inside. There really was nowhere to go to. Couldn’t afford to go to the flicks neither. I would sit in the backyard and watch our neighbors, the Kolmackies, pack up their belongings to leave for the summer and go to Rockaway. We were considered lucky because we had a backyard, even though you never could have gotten lost in it. You could spit across it.
Mr. Kolmackie would be wringing his hankie, so full of sweat that it could have filled a swimming pool. One year he forgot the littlest one, Margo, and just drove off in their bulging car. She stood there biting her teddy bear for a little bit. Me and my pop watched her looking around like a little bird. First up at the sky then down at her sandals. She shook her little feet, one by one, like she was trying to shake off the heat from the hot concrete or something. She didn’t cry for I’d say a good three to four minutes. But boy, when she realized what had happened, we couldn’t hear nothing else in the neighborhood but her bawling. Her tears soaked and snotted up all over her teddy bear. A lot of rage came out of that kid. She stepped on her teddy bear’s arm and pulled at it in the other direction like a mad dog. The frenzy got so bad the bear had to be disposed of on account of being a health hazard to everyone involved. We had to bury it. Well, not really, but I sure didn’t want to touch it, let alone take it away from her. More tears and snot followed.
That’s one of the things the pounding summer heat in a city can do to you. You can easily lose count of how many children you own and not realize it until you’re floating on some cool water at the beach, maybe on some kind of turquoise inflatable raft, and you’ve put back four in a row of your favorite summer drink on an empty stomach – gin and tonic. By the time the news of the missing kid hit Mr. Kolmackie’s comatose brain…oh by the way, Mrs. Kolmackie was in Jersey for the summer to help her sister can tomatoes. My mom said that was a bunch of crap, Mrs. Kolmackie having to go to Jersey, it was because their marriage had irreconcilable marital differences. I didn’t know what that meant, but when I got a little older I just figured it meant they both had a venereal disease.
At this point Mr. Kolmackie could barely swim back to shore. He had to be rescued by his remaining three beanpole kids by a rope that was attached to his…I’ll say his floating paradise of a raft. Standing there like a wet rat that come from the sewer, he counted and recounted his three kids and kept asking, “What happened? How many I got?”
Back at home, my pop captured the snot-soaked child in a pillowcase. He tied a pink sash from my mom’s robe around her waist, letting the top half of her be free and then popped a lollipop in her mouth. My pop used to catch stray cats and dogs for the police and get a nickel for each animal. Back in his day, it was considered quite a skill on the streets. Plus the cops left him alone when he did something stupid. I bet he was thinking this one was worth a lot more than a nickel. After all, it was a child.
They rode the “A” train down to Rockaway to find the Kolmackies. The train was crowded and in those days, not air-conditioned. I used to ride between the subway cars and let the air rushing in fill up my shirt. I would stand there kind of frozen and watch the backbone of the Bronx go by, looking dry and unwanted.
My pop told me people were staring at him and Margo as they got on and off the train. One person even petted the top of Margo’s head and dropped a penny in her hands that sort of made the shape of a cup. He said he had to keep wiping the sweat off his forehead and hers and like my pop always did with me on hot days, he gave her a few smiles and a wink. She just sucked harder on her lollipop.
My mom always called my pop a sheep in ox’s clothing. I thought she was complimenting him on account he was so strong. He could lift almost anything there was to lift on earth. Years later I found out she was making a remark about his character, who he was.
He told me we could have been millionaires if he had only gone into the air-conditioning selling business. People don’t want to do dusting and cleaning on hot days, let alone have some sweating salesman at their door asking them to buy cleaning chemicals and brushes. But that was his job and he did it every day, while my mom cleaned our small house with all the supplies he sold. I can still smell that bleach on her fingers. They felt like prunes touching me when she tucked my napkin in my collar. She would then serve us oatmeal with hard, mystery lumps in it. My pop always shoveled his food down his mouth and didn’t care what it was. My mom would then cry and say he didn’t care about her.
Later, I would hear their clarinet sounds coming from their bedroom. Then my mom would come out, smudged and a little on the happy side. On those days I would ask her for a nickel for ice cream.
Now, the last stop of the subway was a few blocks from the Kolmackies’ bungalow, so my pop hoisted the kid up on his shoulders like one of the vacuums he would deliver door to door. Having the extra weight on his shoulders made for plenty of sweat. He switched Margo from shoulder to shoulder in order to keep her from slipping off and to balance the weight easier. As they got closer, he put her down on the ground and she told him, “I’m a bunny now,” and hopped around in her pillowcase.
I guess she found this better than any ride at Coney Island because when it came time to return her to Mr. Kolmackie, she clung to my pop for dear life and began her tears-and-snot routine. Mr. Kolmackie thanked my pop a whole bunch of times and he gave him a tour of the beachfront bungalow. My pop laughed and said that Kolmackie kept real nervously counting and recounting his kids. He offered my pop some money, but Pop refused. As Pop left, Mr. Kolmackie insisted and shoved a bottle of red wine under my pop’s arm. He waved goodbye to little Margo, who was, by the way, sitting happily in her pillowcase, tired from all the hopping around she had been doing. She gave him the sash from my mom’s pink robe. She had been chewing on it.
“Have a happy, cool summer,” Mr. Kolmackie told my pop as he walked away. My pop never came home that night.
When I got up to pee, I saw my mom standing by the window. She scowled at me and then gave the same look to the moon. I didn’t go back to sleep that night. I just kept counting the number of squares in the checked, red and white wallpaper my pop pasted onto my walls. It was left over from the Kolmackies redecorating their restaurant.
The next morning was Saturday. I found my pop sitting on a crate in our backyard, staring at the ground. I watched my mom pace back and forth in her tiny kitchen, just like the tigers I’d seen at the zoo. Any happiness left in the world, after floods or hurricanes, after all the disasters that had happened, anything left at all, my mom took that available happiness and put it through some appliance in her kitchen. Squeezing each smile, every laugh, any kind of success out of it, until there was nothing left for the rest of the world or for her. She was a bitter woman. And I turned out bitter because of her too. I didn’t know it then, but I sure know it now. Look at me. I never started a family or even the likes of a relationship.
See, my mom got married for a second time, to my pop. Her first husband had become some kind of drunk, so she left him. Turns out later he won the Irish sweepstakes and, well, became filthy rich without ever having to lift a finger, except to hold his whiskey and maybe a broad or two.
“Other people in this world are just too darn lucky,” she would say as she tied my sneakers so tight my foot cramped for the rest of the day. The whole thing left my mother underlyingly, undeniably sad. “Oh I’m not complaining,” she would say when she was dusting or mopping, “I’m just upset.” Everything she said was said with a kinda clip and a pursed smile while underneath her face there was another meaning that could have burned Jesus Christ right off his cross. I basically avoided her except on her birthday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas.
My pop said he married her because he had the strangest feeling when he met her, and it never stopped whenever he saw her. Her pretty face made him hungry. Whenever he saw her, he wanted to eat something. He thought that was a good sign, because other girls could often make him sick, so he married her.
They had me a year later, at home, on the hottest day of the year. After that, they didn’t want any more kids. My mom always mumbled that childbirth was sort of sloppy or that it had made some kind of mess. My pop was just happy he had someone to play catch with.
As I looked out my bedroom window that night, he was still sitting there staring at the ground. I remember I could see sweat glow on his skin because the moon was like a spotlight on him. I knew something had changed that day and I never wanted to take my eyes off him again.
I found myself the next morning twisted in my bed sheets, sweaty and crusted over with sleep. I rushed to the window to see if he was still there. I closed my eyes and I smelled the most unfamiliar smell. The earth. Black, moist dirt. Not the kind in the streets or on cars, or caught in my mom’s dust rag or on your face after baseball. This was a clean, fresh smell of life, a new beginning. It was all there as I breathed it in. Then I heard my pop’s voice. “Charlie, get your mom. Come on down here.” I raced down the tiny back staircase, moving like a pinball would. My mom was already there. Now, I’ve never seen my mom in her nightie. Swear to God. Let me tell you, standing there, she looked like some kind of floating, pink angel about to take off. But the strangest thing was that she was against a big, black background. I rubbed my eyes and did a double take. It was our whole backyard, dug up, in one big pile.
“If we can’t afford the dough to stay at Rockaway, I decided to bring Rockaway to us,” my pop said, and he smeared more dirt on his face thinking he was wiping it off. I looked at my mom, then at him, confused. He took us both by the hand, holding on so tightly it was like we were the bars that fit over the roller coaster cars. My bare feet squished in the ground and he led us down a dirt staircase into the earth. The burning sun just slipped off my shoulders. It felt good. Cool air rushed up at us and I swear I could feel my folks’ heartbeats in my hands. I got a spinning head, in a good way, because my body began to cool down and lose the aching pain of summertime. I looked around as my pop showed us the surroundings. He was moving his arms like he was a girl working at a Macy’s display case at Christmas or something. We stood there for a moment, as a family for the first time, and took it all in.
My mom smiled. The only other time I’d seen her smile was at Easter one year when the butcher gave her ten percent off a ham, on account that she had pretty legs. Her teeth were nice. Like two rows of pearls. She kissed my pop on the cheek and rubbed my head like if she was trying to get dust out of it.
Underneath the ground, away from the sweltering sun, my pop had carved us out, from the ground, a whole summer home. We had a front room, a kitchen, a bathroom with no tub yet, no crapper, but I won’t get into that, a bedroom for me complete with a dirt mattress and pillow and a bedroom for my folks off a long hallway. He had used some old railroad ties to hold up the walls and ceiling. My mom spun around and hugged her pink nightie. I can remember her face was flushed like roses. My pop looked down at me, pinched my cheek, and said, “You’re a good-looking kid.” Boy, summertime. It didn’t have us beat.
My mom began to decorate immediately, covering our new home with knick-knacks and ruffled stuff. I’d often hear her humming while she dusted. We had running water too. Pop ran the garden hose through a hole he had made in the ceiling. He replanted the yard, now our roof, with little grass seeds. Our front door was even with the ground and made from the leftovers of an old shed and painted green. The bathroom got installed with the old, clawfoot tub that sat in our backyard for years. We didn’t even need an icebox on account of the natural state of being underground. My pop redefined cool. He even was able to tap the gas line that ran underground, making a stove, so my mom could do her cooking.
If I could imagine what love tasted like, it would have been her meals that summer. I could come in any time of day and smell fresh-baked cookies. The best part of the whole thing was the nights. I’d come in after a long hard day of trying to dodge the sun, but still being stung and burnt all over by it. My mom would be at the stove happily stirring something and I could hear my pop, huffing and puffing away, moving more dirt. He dug so far out, I know part of our house must have been under the street somewhere. “Why live in a small house, when you can make it a big one?” he said, smiling.
In my dirt bed at night, I swear I could almost hear those earthy walls whisper my name…Charlie, like maybe a woman would now. Or I’d just lie there and listen to my folks make their clarinet sounds in their bedroom.
Now one Sunday, we were all sitting there listening to the radio. My pop had also rigged us up some electricity. All of a sudden a little dirt fell from our ceiling, then a little more, and finally a giant clump right on my lap. A tiny bit of sun shined through the hole and hit my pop’s face. As I looked up, I could see the beginnings of something that looked like a Creamsicle-colored tail being shoved down the hole.
Up above our home, digging a hole in the ground, stood the meanest kid in the neighborhood, Kenny Rossjaeger. I spent my whole childhood trying to outrun him and if any kid talked to him he would punch them in the face.
One day I was standing at the corner of 138th and Prospect looking both ways before I crossed the street and all of a sudden, I felt the slap of a fast, sweaty palm against my head. My cheek smarted and my brain pressed so hard against my skull, I swear I saw President Roosevelt standing there.
“You only need to look one way when you’re crossing a one-way street, ya box of rocks,” screamed a voice. I looked up and focused down the street. It was Kenny, peddling his bike like he had just been let out of some nuthouse.
“He’s his father’s son,” his mother would say all disappointed, whenever a cop would be shaking him by his collar, wanting to hit him.
Now, Kenny had no idea he was standing on our roof while he dug a hole in the ground that day. I guess he figured nobody would notice. His plans entailed burying his cat up to the neck in dirt and then cutting its head off with a mower. In our yard!
My pop stood and tried to balance himself on our dirt sofa. He was swaying back and forth as the tail came through the hole. “Get me a pillowcase,” he yelled. He caught the cat like it was some kind of birth, then it tore out of the pillowcase and up and out the dirt stairs like there was no tomorrow. My pop stretched his neck and put his head up close to the hole. Kenny peered in, wondering what happened to his cat. “Now you’ve come face to face with the devil, you bastard!” blasted my pop in Kenny’s face. I thought Kenny was going to throw up because he gulped in so much air. I saw him on the street the next day. He was scared so bad it looked like his freckles had left his face. In a low voice he said “Hi,” to me. Then I punched him in the nose. I always thought he would end up in jail, but I heard he taught driving lessons somewhere upstate.
That summer we stayed safe from the heat, and Kenny. My pop kept expanding the back of our home with his nightly digs in the dirt. My mom and me never went back there because we had plenty of space up front.
Then one night I noticed him hauling out more dirt then usual. He became like a machine, almost running over my mom, knocking over the house of cards I was making and stepping all over my toys. He knocked over my mom’s favorite vase holding flowers he had bought her. I just stood there and watched the water seep into the ground.
“Hey Pop, Pop…what’s going on?” I asked. “Don’t you think we have enough space? I think this place is great the way it is,” I told him. He didn’t answer and breathed in so much air I could see his chest heaving like a balloon. My mom backed into the couch and slowly sat down. It seemed like the more air he took in; the more and more she became deflated. It looked like she was shriveling or something. Then he came back in, hauling a huge door down the steps and headed to the back with it. We didn’t need doors. We didn’t have doors in our place, just light, pretty curtains my mom hung up. My mom and me listened from the couch, late into the night. He pounded away on the door and was cursing under his breath every once in a while.
We didn’t see much of him after that. He would leave early in the morning before we got up and come home way after my mom and I fell asleep. We didn’t eat dinner together anymore either and my mom’s cooking turned back into some kind of gristle. Unidentifiable eating. It made my stomach ache and my palms sweat because I had to finish every bite. I missed my pop.
I swore late at night I could hear some clarinet noises coming from the back where he was, but I knew it couldn’t be, because those sounds only came from my folks’ bedroom. I couldn’t bear it anymore. Night after night, sitting across the table from my mom, I was watching her turn the color of skies like on stormy days. I’m not kidding you. I spit my gristle out on my plate and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. I wanted to shake her, just like when the gumball machine cheated me, you know? I stood really close to her face and looked at her as she just sat there at the dinner table. I could see wild, gray hairs popping out of her scalp. She looked like she had forgotten who she was. “Come on,” I said and took her by the hand. She followed me like a puppy. It was dark and cold. We walked through the hallway he had dug. Finally, we got to a big opening. I looked up and saw it, the door. Pop’s door. I gently pushed my mom’s shoulders and made her sit down on the ground. I tried to breathe in a lot of courage as I approached that door. My knuckles could barely do it, but I managed to knock. “Pop? Pop? Are you in there?” I said. About a minute later, the door started to open real slow. Little bits of dirt fell from the ceiling and landed on my head. They felt like raindrops. He leaned his head through the opening. “Pop…we kind of miss you,” I said real softly to him. He smiled at me. I could feel my mom’s breathing as she got up, stood over me, and looked at him. Instead of dirt, I felt her tears dropping on my head. He slowly closed the door. I wanted so badly to hold my mom’s hand that night, but her hands just stayed in fists, clenched real tight. You know? How could I?
Every night after dinner, for I don’t know how long, she would go back to his door. One night I watched her back there. She was sitting up against his door holding the knob. She turned and turned but it just stayed locked. She didn’t make a sound, sitting there for hours, twisting the knob. She was crying tears that soaked the whole front of her nightie.
It was so quiet there the next day; I could hear the noise the cards made that I was tossing into a hat. The two of hearts got away from me and I went around the corner to pick it up. When I started to stand up – and I’ll never forget this because it felt like my eyes were seeing everything in slow motion – I looked up from the card and saw my mom standing in the doorway. She looked like she had got lacquered in pink. Her lips formed a bee sting. Any gray hairs left had been covered by brown hair dye and she had shiny black shoes on that had a heel. Her hat was hung low across her forehead and I swear her eyes looked like two burnt sapphires. In her hand, she was holding a suitcase. I could see that her knuckles were red. My mind sparked and told me to go get Pop, but when I turned around he was already standing in back of me. We never saw her again after that day. For some reason that I don’t know why, the next day – I let Kenny Rossjaeger beat me up. My pop never went back to his room with the door again.
I was responsible now for doing the cooking and the cleaning. Imagine that – a boy cooking. I cooked beans and franks almost every night. On Fridays, I made cheese sandwiches and milk. He didn’t seem to mind. I was glad to have my pop back.
One day a man showed up at our dirt door. He was tall, had a fedora on, and had a nose that looked like he had borrowed it from a hawk. He smelled like cigarettes and the cold newspaper we used to wrap things up in the icebox. He started coming by almost every night. When I lay there at night, I could hear them unrolling and rolling up big, giant papers the man carried under his arm when he came over.
Mr. Kolmackie and his kids came back from Rockaway and Mrs. Kolmackie came back from Jersey. She gave me and my pop some canned tomatoes and I learned how to cook spaghetti. His kids looked like they had put on a little weight. They were all tanned and happy, even Margo.
One day, my pop told me he wasn’t going to sell cleaning products anymore. “What are you going to do then?” He tossed a cigarette in his mouth like it was loaded with rocket fuel and then slowly smiled at me. That day we made tuna fish sandwiches. We kept them in our shirt pockets and rode the “A” train down to Rockaway. When we got there, we found a nice place to sit at the beach and we ate our lunch. “If you could have any one of those bungalows, which one would you pick?” he said, pointing around. I looked at him for a moment and I can remember his face looking like it was changing colors because the water was reflecting off it. I picked the one that reminded me of my mom, pink.
See, it turns out my pop invented the blueprints for bomb shelters. That’s why that man came to see him so much. Some kind of government man to work with him, who knew my pop was on to something. Something much more than a summer bungalow. Every time somebody in the country bought a bomb shelter, my pop would get a check in the mail.
We didn’t rent a bungalow in Rockway that next summer. We bought one. And the two next-door to it. We rented one to the Kolmackies and even Mrs. Kolmackie spent the summer there. Me and my pop would sometimes sit for hours and look out at the beach, not saying a word. Seems like we lived there forever. Time slowed down and I grew up.
One day I walked into our front room and saw my pop sitting there quiet as stones. It looked like he had an invisible rock on his stomach, pushing in, making his back curve. His shoulders were hunched like they weighed a lot. All crumpled up in his hands, from a long time ago, he was holding the pink sash that came from my mom’s robe. He was crying. I had never seen him cry before. His tears didn’t roll down his face like the way girls’ did. They just kinda sat there all glossy, holding his eyes in. My pop died a week later on the hottest day of the year.
I used to think we were all like a bunch of ants in the world, just living life and waiting to get stepped on and die. Not anymore. I don’t know if this is right or nothing, but I had him cremated and buried him in our backyard in the Bronx. It felt like I was giving him a chance to stay there forever. Happy, I hope.
Nowadays I just go home and sit out on my porch and look out at Rockaway. I figured this is the best place for me to be…I guess.
This is a reprint of work originally published in the 2004 Bridport Prize anthology.
Kim Kolarich is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her fiction was longlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Contest, and a finalist for the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. Her stories have appeared in the Bridport Prize anthology, FreeFall, Julien’s Journal, 3711 Atlantic, 34th Parallel, Karamu, Rollick Magazine, After Hours, The Gap-Toothed Madness, Streetwrite, Intrinsick, Paragraph Planet, The Furious Gazelle, and Two Hawks Quarterly. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.