I met Ronny Hopkins the summer he turned thirteen. He stood a half-head taller than his friends did, and before he filled out, thinner than most of them. He wore a crew cut—butch wax on the front cowlicks—when other kids wore Beatle haircuts. I was in my mid-twenties. Sophie and I had split up.
Ronny knew the windows of my apartment uptown. Three of them in a row, smudged gray from the dust raised by F Street traffic, just above a liquor store whose sidewalk bulged and cracked—a hell of an easy place for a kid to spill a bike. He didn’t know anything about me except for the fantastic stories the senior high greasers told him. Straddling their bikes, Ronny and his buddies would watch me come down my flight of wooden steps, out that faded blue door onto the sidewalk. I always had a cigar in my mouth. I’d pace, waiting to see Alice get across the street okay after school on the way to my old house—her mother’s house. Of course, Ronny didn’t know that.
Across from the liquor store sat a bar that seemed to be sold every three years. Each time a sign reading “Under New Management” would hang in the window. It was called John’s Office Bar—the JOB. Most of the men who drank there were black. The place had front windows on either side of the door, and sometimes during the afternoon, old eyes squinted out at the street.
One day Ronny’s bunch pulled their bikes up, pointed at the window, called out a racial slur and skedaddled.
A young black man in tight pants, rayon shirt and featherweights threw the door open. “You muthafuckers better go home to your mommas!”
At that time if you lived close to the railroad tracks that bordered the town along its southwest corner, chances were you weren’t rich or white.
If Ronny or his friends were interested in getting a little something for a dance coming up at St. Catherine’s, they came to me. The first time I met him he asked me for a half-pint of Southern Comfort.
“Your last name’s Hopkins, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah.” He may as well have added “asshole” from his tone.
“Your father’s Peter Hopkins. Go on,” I waved a hand, “get the hell out of here. You should know better.”
Ronny wanted to break through the layers. Didn’t matter if it was his old man, the principal at school, or the local cops. Of course, the older he got, the more layers he found.
Ronny smiled, gave me the finger, and rode away.
The second time his friend Rotten Kid spoke up and asked for the same purchase. I knew Rotten Kid spoke for Ronny because he ordered that half-pint of Southern Comfort. Everybody else ordered a quart or two of Carling Black Label or Miller.
I remember squinting at the glare coming off chrome and windshield of a bright, white Lincoln Continental behind Rotten Kid and thinking, take that boat back to the Terrace or North Lake Drive. I had a hangover, and I told Rotten Kid I’d pick up their beer and booze for a fifty percent tip to get rid of them. Ronny came from around the corner.
“Fifty percent’s okay,” he said.
I had them park their bikes behind the building in a weedy yard and took them up the back steps to my apartment. I gave them Slim Jims, and I played them some records they said sucked. After I got tired of listening to them talk about who had big tits and what cars were boss, I asked for my money. Ronny handed me two twenties for six quarts of Miller and his Southern Comfort.
“Thanks. Keep the change.
“Did your father give you this?”
“No way. My grandpa.”
“What did you do to get it?”
“Asked him for it,” he smiled.
At fourteen Ronny and a friend named David Roscoe shot a swan with an arrow. It went all the way through the swan’s neck and stuck there. The picture blazed across the front page of the Asbury Park Press. The bird didn’t die—that was the amazing part. People from all over wrote letters saying things like this typifies the serious moral decay of our youth. How dare these boys attack a helpless creature that fosters beauty and a sense of community pride?
The result? The town council president at the time—Peter Hopkins—built wooden shelters on Silver Lake’s island. The actual shooter was never revealed. Who killed Bobby Franks, Leopold, or Loeb? Roscoe said Ronny shot the arrow, and Ronny claimed Roscoe did it. Next time I saw Ronny I asked him.
“Which one of you shot that arrow?”
He laughed, “Take a guess.”
Up until a few years ago, I enjoyed hanging around bars with younger men. Sometimes that caused trouble. One summer night I banged into people at the Tropical Pub, talking loud, telling stories. A cigar ash flicked the wrong leg, an arm knocked hard into ribs once too often. Comments came quicker until a path cleared between this big-ass Avon lifeguard and me. He gave me the finger, and then waved for me to come on.
I set my drink down on a table, balanced my cigar across its rim, and straightened up with a hearty, “Fuck you.”
“Better leave it alone, Jimmy,” Ronny cautioned. His Mercer Ave crew was there.
I said, “Hot shot,” and followed the guy up outside through the side, exit-only door. Everybody hooted. He turned around and smiled, drawing it out as if he was on his way to be crowned king. We got outside. Then the ground rumbled up.
Ronny found me kneeling on the grass. My shoulders were bunched and in a shadow, and my legs were in a slant of porch light streaming from a backyard across the way.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were praying,” Ronny said.
I heard cop sirens coming down the street. Ronny’s crew took exception because they knew me, and all hell had broken loose in the bar.
Flashlights walked around. Out front in the street, car doors slammed, engines turned over. The flashlight beams shot down our little alley, then turned around as if they didn’t want to find anything.
“My floating rib is sunk,” I rolled onto my back.
A few days later, Ronny made sure that Avon guard sucked his meals through a straw for the next six weeks.
How to accommodate people—I learned that from my mother. My father had two summer rituals. At ten, I thought both were secrets. The first happened weeknights just before we all sat down to dinner. He would sneak out the front door, go behind an old shed in our backyard, and take a gulp from a bottle of Powers Irish whiskey hidden in a broken ceramic drainpipe. On Friday and Saturday, Mother let him drink in the house, but other nights were work nights.
Just before her serrated knife sawed through the center of two frozen blocks of Birds Eye peas she would call, “I’m putting on the vegetables!” loud enough to erase the fire siren. She didn’t tolerate lies so she gave him escape routes. Some secret. Our neighbor’s dog knew. Why else announce that she was too busy risking a finger to notice him go out the door? To give him a chance to go out there, drink, and then wash the whiskey off his breath with the garden hose. No household detail, however small and unimportant to my father, my sisters, or me escaped Mother’s eye. We kept two flowerpots on the front steps. Mother noticed that my sister Teresa planted seven marigolds in one and five in the other. But hose water washed away whiskey breath. Not for me when I tried it.
The old man’s second ritual came after dark. He took walks down to the boardwalk. He always went alone and left my mother home with us children. I timed his trips. One day I borrowed my mother’s watch and walked to the beach instead of riding my bike. I doubled my time and came up with my father’s usual time of absence—minus seventeen minutes. Seventeen minutes over six blocks—to a ten year old the possibilities were endless. At first, I figured he strolled, but he was an athletic man—wiry and quick—a shade under six feet. Secret destinations came to me—places forbidden. Mother never questioned him about the walks.
She would say, “See you soon.”
One night I worked up the courage to sneak out past my curfew and follow him. He stuck to Waterfront all the way. Man, I shook all over. No way could I let him spot me. It was mid-July, and the closer we got to the beach, the more the sidewalk filled with people. One block from Ocean Ave the streetlights along the boardwalk cast beams of welcome. He walked across Ocean Ave to the boardwalk. I stopped four or so houses short and sat on a rooming house step. He walked right up to the old pavilion—a white-columned monster looking west from the beach. The boardwalk ran alongside and behind it. Bright yellow bulbs shown under WW I helmet-shaped lamps, and inside white light filled a ballroom stacked with folding wooden chairs.
My father disappeared into the front entrance. I had to get closer, but I sure as hell didn’t want him to catch me, so I waited until I could get lost in a group of teenagers crossing to the boards. A milkshake mixed inside me. Everything looked bright, and the noise of voices coming from every direction moved me closer to the pavilion wall. When I turned around the northeast corner, I saw Dad.
He sat on a bench facing the ocean, arms stretched over on the bench’s back. His legs spread out straight. Smoke rose from his head. I smelled a cigar. Cigarettes were tolerated in the house—not cigars. He didn’t bother to take it out of his mouth. He just puffed as he looked out at the water. After a while, he reached the cigar up and let the breeze flick the ash. It blew back, split, and rolled on the boards like mini tumbleweeds.
Just my luck—he stood up and snuffed the stub too fast for me to beat him across Ocean Ave. He walked through the pavilion. I had to wait until he started down Waterfront, then I cut over to Seaside and had to haul ass to cut ahead of him. I got in the door, puffing, sweaty. I put my back against the mudroom wall and felt my legs go rubbery. Five seconds later, there was Mother.
“You’re grounded Saturday. If your father knows, it’ll be more.” I rolled with it. For her solving secrets was child’s play, lies grounds for excommunication. That was why she never told a soul she surprised Denny Sullivan and me. Just to accommodate my sisters, my father, and me.
I worshiped him. In his presence, I had a simple, silent respect—mass without the incense, bells, and Latin. Sean Hanlon’s nave was the kitchen, his trinity whiskey, questions and cigarettes. For hymns a flicked matchbook skipped atop our kitchen table from right hand to left and back.
On Fridays, he called his family to confession. One at a time, we sat in the dark across the kitchen table from him. First, my mother, Meagan, was asked about the household money, which she managed. Then my two older sisters, Teresa and Mary Ellen, about their boyfriends or school, and I about my future. The old man ran out of steam by the time Mary Jean came along.
Sometimes Mary Ellen hid and cried, and Teresa, being the oldest and wisest, called one of her many boyfriends to come get her the hell away from the house. Teresa never dated boys who didn’t own a reliable car. Sometimes it felt like Sean just warmed up on Teresa and Mary Ellen. He saved his best stuff—his high heat and nasty, twelve-to-six curve—for me.
He’d been an All-Star pitcher for perhaps St. Rose’s best team ever—they won the state title his junior year. He still holds the school record for most strikeouts career and single season. As a freshman, he led the varsity in wins. According to newspaper clippings, he chucked so fast batters had to sit dead red, and then in his sophomore year his curveball turned into a real yacker. Major League scouts began sniffing around. By senior year, they were at every game with their notepads. Sean made the Asbury Park Press sports pages all spring that year, even after the season ended.
That spring Miss Meagan Kinney accompanied him to the prom. Just before graduation, Sean must have been salivating. A scout could sign him when he had a diploma. He never signed with anybody. Sean and Meagan married in June, and six months later Teresa made her debut. When Mary Ellen came along, everybody worried about the war in Europe. I showed up a week before Pearl Harbor. Five years after me came Mary Jean. Mother called her “Our miracle.”
Sean joined the service but never went overseas. Two atomic bombs settled his service time. After that, he became what they used to call a handy man—odd jobs from roofing to small gas engine repairs. When TVs came around, he went to school and learned all about them. I remember in the fifties he’d come home with his fat, black kit that opened like a suitcase. It was full of tubes—big ones and little ones in orange boxes with numbers printed on the ends. My father repaired something not found in his own home.
I fell in love with Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees from magazine photographs and newspapers. Dad didn’t share my feelings.
“An overpaid draft dodger,” he called Mickey. “He’d hit lefty off me, and with that uppercut I’d hang his ass out to dry. Curves in the dirt all day.”
I went through Little League and Babe Ruth. Dad came to every game. He’d stand behind the wire backstop in front of the stands. I tried to knock every pitch over the fence just like Mickey.
“You’re swinging too hard,” he would say.
He spoke in his homily voice from the kitchen table—not loud or scolding—just a simple statement of fact from a position of authority. Marriage is a sacrament. God will forgive you. You’re swinging too hard. He didn’t say it too often, but I heard it every pitch.
By the time I turned twenty, the old man’s kitchen liturgies made it clear he wanted me out and on my own. I tooled around in a ’55 Chevy two-tone and hung out with Denny Sullivan. We worked for the DPW, borough of Belmar. Denny and I were tan, blond, and free. We shared everything until that afternoon Mother discovered I forgot to lock my door.
All twenty of those years, we lived in a little house on Waterfront Ave on the west side of F Street. In the summer when we had neighbors over—it only took about ten people to fill our backyard—cigarette smoke hung in the thick humidity right along with the smoke from our deluxe barbeque with a handle that turned and blew air from under and up through the coals.
Whiskey in one hand, cigarette in his mouth, Sean would crank that handle as if sounding an air raid. Sparks and ash shot up until Mother would suggest, “No one likes soot on their burger.” Right after the ’61 Series—the year of the M&M Boys—my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died before I married Sophie.
The house on Waterfront was sold, and my mother took the ‘Marys’ with her to Cape May County—Teresa had her own brood by then up in Bernardsville. Mother and the Marys used the money from the house and Sean’s pension and Social Security to start a little craft shop. Mary Ellen did the crafts, Mary Jean did the floor work, and Mother kept the books. She passed nine years ago in 1978. By then both Marys were married. They saw to Mother’s needs at the end. At the time, I lived in California. Mom’s buried in Tinton Falls right next to Dad.
Late one night after my father received his diagnosis, he called me into the kitchen. I was half-asleep. He didn’t say anything for a long time. “Are you interested in a burial plot?” he asked finally. “I have an option on six for any of the family who wants one. They’re not together. Three are right next to each other, then three off to one side.”
I sat there and watched the clock. It hung on the wall right above the table, the cord trailing down and disappearing down to the plug. I wanted to say something, but what answer could I give?
He lit a cigarette from the glow of his old one. He poured whiskey from the bottle into a shot glass. The liquid stopped a breath from the rim. He put down the bottle, took away an open hand, and moved it to the glass. Fingers found it. He lifted the glass to sip.
“Never mind,” he let out a breath. “Never mind.”
It’s the same in my dream. I don’t say a word. I’ve been having it for years. I had it when I came out of the anesthesia after my surgery.
Here’s the dream.
I’m still a boy. We’re at the kitchen table, the old chrome-edged and red-metal top table. It’s just my father and I. It’s summer, and it’s dark. The back door is open, the half-screen door letting in outside sounds—cars and voices. I can see his outline against the white refrigerator. When there aren’t cars passing, I can hear the humming of the condenser and his breathing, the pull of his cigarette filter from his lips, the disheartened blowing out of the smoke. He turns the cigarette against the ashtray’s side, sharpening its burning tip to a point before lifting it again to his mouth.
“What are you going to do?” he asks.
He always speaks as he exhales as if the words have formed in his lungs from the cigarette smoke. He asks other things. They’re never specific, never a question with an easy answer to get the conversation going. Sometimes in the dream, I get angry and want to leave, but it’s like a nightmare where I can’t run away. I’m frozen in the chair. Other times I want to speak, to ask him why he keeps me here at this table in the dark when I have things to do. I hear my friends outside—Hank Mariucci and Kenny Blalock.
“What are you going to do with your life?”
Holding the beer bottle’s neck, he slowly traces a circle with the base’s edge. He moves the bottle so the tiny groves in its base rumble over the table’s center crack. Then his cigarette smears in the ashtray, “What the hell’s the difference?”
That’s when I want to speak. That’s something I can answer. He’s talking about himself, about what a failure he thinks he is. But he can’t see himself as I see him. I want to tell him that. It doesn’t make any difference to me, Dad. It’s okay; we’re okay. I want to say it, but I can’t. That’s the one constant. In all my other dreams, I still have my speaking voice, but in this one, I can’t speak a word.
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