All of my uncles were coming over for supper, Bobby, Phil, Jimmy, and Billy. Grandma had told me it was a special supper, it wasn’t really. Uncle Jimmy was coming home from prison for the thousandth time. If I woke up and Jimmy hadn’t mowed the lawn or shoveled snow for more than a week that’s where he was and I only knew he was coming back because we’d have special Jimmy prison suppers. And even though he was the only brother still living at home all I really knew of Jimmy were three things: he lifted weights, he drank too much, and he liked to steal. Later on I’d find out from Bobby that he caught the herp from a woman at the Horseshoe Lounge. For years to come Jimmy’s ailment would become a legendary family laugh when ever he wasn’t around.
Uncle Bobby was a favorite of mine. He was the second oldest of the brothers. I liked him because he would rip up Grandma’s backyard on his dirt bike. He wore leather jackets like Fonzie and liked motorcycles and cars and hated school. He moved out and went straight to work once he graduated and never looked back. I didn’t know Phil as much as I knew the others. He was quiet and wrecked his knees in a drunken skiing accident before I was born. When he came over he didn’t talk or do much. He’d speak softly, drink nonalcoholic beer, and watch whatever sports were in season.
Billy was my favorite of all of them. He was eleven years older than me so he was more like a brother to me instead of an uncle. He was the youngest of them all. Before he left for the army he used to teach me things like how to pitch and the perfect windup. He taught me how to punch and defend myself. He even spent thirty minutes with me looking at the baseball box scores in the paper and we’d each pick a team like a real draft, and we’d keep stats for our players. At the end of the week we’d see who had the best team. Somehow I always lost, Billy was one of the few people who wouldn’t let me have it easy. I always had to work hard with him but it was worth it because after all the stats, the boxing, the pitching, we’d walk to the movies and he’d treat me. Or he’d let me sit in his room for hours by myself and play all of his records: ACDC, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, The Stooges. He had everything, and each record had a different sound that fed my head and created different daydreams.
I failed to mention I have an aunt too, Debbie. She was stuck right in the middle of all the brothers. It threw off the count in my head. She spent her days in her room dancing in front of her television like the teens do in 1950’s movies, except she wasn’t a teen. She only came out of her room to eat and use the bathroom. Then it was back in her room to dance in front of John Mellencamp and Elvis VHS tapes.
I didn’t ever ask anything about Debbie. I could ask anything about Dad or my Uncles, but not Debbie and it was because of the velvet tapestry in the living room. The big velvet tapestry that stretched the length of the couch it was hung behind. It was of Jesus and the Last Supper. Many of days I sat watching Chips, Little House, and Mash with Jesus and his buddies staring down at me.
“Grandma,” I’d say.
“Yes, Gerry?” She’d ask.
“Why is Debbie in there dancing?”
Grandma would make the sign of the cross and tell me to pray for her and ask the saints to pray for her too. That’s the damn answer I always got for dancing Debbie and it was because of the tapestry. Grandma hung that thing up to remind all of us that Jesus was watching. It freaked me out. A bunch of long-haired men sitting on the same side of a table. Big red-neon-hearts glowing from their chests, a loaf of bread to split up and cups for each of them. It was the mysteries of religion hidden inside velvet 1970’s LSD.
Each one of my uncles arrived on their own time. Phil always showed up first and asked me about school, then he’d change the channel to sports and not say another word unless someone talked to him. Bobby showed up last and strutted his way past my grandfather, who was always smoking a cigar in his chair on the sun porch, which wasn’t a porch at all, but another room with chairs and a television, but for whatever reason we called it the sun porch because my grandmother did. Dad was in Kentucky, or Ohio, or Arkansas, who knew? He wasn’t going to make it to yet another exciting Jimmy prison release supper.
“Gerry, go get Billy.”
I didn’t move from the couch. I was busy was trying to make out the music Debbie was dancing to in her room.
“Gerard Henry!” Grandma said. When my full name was used and my uncles all looked at me I knew I had to get my ass in gear.
“Where is he?”
“The Horseshoe. Tell him supper is in twenty minutes.”
“Where’s Jimmy? We can’t have supper without Jimmy?” I said.
“He’s at Cousin Maureen’s.”
I dared to never say anything bad about Maureen or her dad, George. Or any of Maureen’s insane children who I was often forced to hang out with. The Nye’s were completely fucked up, but I dared not say so. My grandma’s sister, Barbara, lived there. Barbara was a complete mess. The worst kind of alcoholic. If we all walked two houses down to Maureen’s they’d lock Barbara up in a room because she liked gin, vodka, and whiskey, more than food. More than her husband, George. More than her daughter and her grand kids.
One night I was looking at my baseball cards and Barbara staggered into our house. Grandma gave her a beer and a little glass. It seemed completely normal to me. Grandma and her sister laughing and talking, then when I was reading stats on the back of a Dwight Evans card, Barbara, for what ever reason, leaned in and bit my grandmother on the arm until it bled. An entire crowd of onlookers erupted in the kitchen. Jimmy and Billy came out of their rooms to help. Maureen and George ran up from the end of the street. My grandpa with a cigar hanging out of his mouth pulled Barbara off my grandmother’s arm. Everyone was in the house. There were accusations and arguing and a drunk and screaming Barbara being dragged out of the house like a criminal. I asked what happened, but the damn tapestry, the damn prayers, foiled me yet again.
I put on my winter cap and coat and walked out the front door. Down the brick stairs, to the statue of The Virgin Mary and I’d make the sign of the cross because I knew Grandma was watching. I walked across the little dead end road and in to the Horseshoe Lounge parking lot. I opened the door and saw Billy sitting at the bar with a couple of girls. Pat Lee who owned the bar and some how bar tended his own bar 24/7 was best friends with my grandparents, and as long as there was a family member inside I was allowed inside.
“Billy,” I said, interrupting his conversation with the two women.
“What’s going on, Gerry?”
“Grandma said get your ass home. Supper is about to start.”
The two girls laughed because all 5ft of me said “ass.” I looked at them both with hate in my eyes not only because they laughed, but because I liked their bodies and I didn’t know why. Billy reached in to his pocket and counted out two quarters and put them in my hand.
“Go play some pinball while I finish my beer,” Billy said.
Pat Lee handed me a can of Coke.
“It’ll be your ass if we don’t get back for supper in time.”
Billy pulled a cigarette out of one of the girl’s pack and lit it.
“Go play pinball, you little bastard.”
The two girls giggled over their beer cans. I heard one of them say, “Aw, he’s so cute.”
I took the quarters and ran over to the pinball because of the chubby I was getting in my jeans. It confused me. I started getting them watching Charlie’s Angels, reruns not long ago. I had no idea why it was happening to me. I both loved and hated them. I confessed it to Father Ryan one time and his advice was to say a rosary and go jogging. I tried both things, but neither worked. I’d run with a boner or I’d pray with a boner. I was a boner machine and at night I’d ask Jesus to forgive me for the lust in my heart. I knew the word, but I really didn’t understand it. I knew it had to do with men and women. I read it in one of the Playboys I stole from Lil’ Peach, but when it came to my own body I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was or what I should do with it.
It wasn’t long after when Bobby walked in looking for both me and Billy. Billy put on his jacket and kissed one of the girls. I took a mental note of how he kissed her. The three of us walked across the snow covered parking lot.
“Ma’s pissed,” Bobby said.
“Ma will be fine two seconds after we get there.”
“Ma gets pissed, then the idiot gets pissed,” Bobby replied. “I didn’t drive all the way here so that fat bastard could start shit.”
“You sweat it too much, Bobby,” Billy said. “Dad won’t do shit.”
“He won’t, huh?”
I walked between the both of them like a barrier so they wouldn’t fight. My entire ten years of life on earth was spent keeping people from fighting with one another. “Not in front of the kid,” were the famous words I heard. Grandma told me one time that I was an angel sent by God to help heal the family. None of my uncles nor my grandfather liked it much when my grandmother talked like that. They thought it would make me sensitive. I already liked reading books, and watching Lawrence Welk reruns with Grandma on Saturday nights, both were bad enough in their minds. After Mass on Sundays I found myself in the yard boxing, or playing baseball, or football, or training for absolutely no reason. One of my uncles had me in the yard jogging laps like I was going to enter the Olympics. I literally ran like an idiot for no reason and it didn’t help me get any better at sports. Later on, I found out it was to keep me from getting too sensitive. It was their secret plan. Whenever Grandma was done with me, then I’d have to do push ups or learn an uppercut or shit in the woods without toilet paper. I had never been so exhausted in my life.
I was too busy thinking about the girl who had called me “cute,” in The Horseshoe. The way her thighs were trapped inside of her tight jeans, when I realized Bobby and Billy had decided upon something.
“You up for a little game after supper, Gerry?” Billy asked.
“We are all going to play pond hockey.”
“Hockey? I never played pond hockey before,” I said with excitement. “Where?”
“We can’t walk there. That’s almost near Wilmington, I think.” I replied.
“Kid, don’t sweat the walk.” Billy replied, “We’re going to drive.”
“I don’t have skates or a stick.”
“I play in my shoes,” Bobby said.
“I can play hockey in my shoes?” I asked.
“I play in skates. Most people play in skates,” Billy replied pointing at Bobby, “That idiot plays in shoes.”
“Well, I ain’t got a stick.” I said.
“We got fifty sticks in Grandpa’s basement,” Billy replied.
It was decided that we would all play hockey over by Archie Bradford’s house on the pond after supper. And it was decided that I would play goalie, and that Billy had leg pads for me, but I would have to use a baseball glove instead of the proper goalie’s glove to catch the puck flying at me every ten seconds.
“Where have you been?” Grandma asked like the three of us had returned after being lost in the Yukon for fifteen years.
Grandpa looked up from his glasses and sighed. He was a man of very few words. I might’ve heard him say a handful of paragraphs, and that was with his brothers during drunk family reunions. Outside that he grunted, sighed, and loudly snapped his tongue against the roof of his mouth to let us know his didn’t approve of whatever we were doing. The three of us could’ve saved a family of four from a burning building and be local heroes and he would sigh and snap his newspaper he’d already read five times.
Phil was at the table with his non alcoholic beer. He had agreed to play hockey with us. Debbie sat there with headphones in her ears and she bopped her head to whatever cassette tape she had in her Walkman.
“Where the shit’s Jimmy?” I asked.
Grandma gasped at my language, Grandpa sighed, Debbie drooled on her shirt a bit, Phil laughed.
“I’m right here, you little asshole,” Jimmy said, followed by everyone’s sounds of disapproval going around the table one more time for good measure.
I looked at Jimmy and he was even more muscle jacked than before he went to prison. His arms like Conan’s, his hair like the Dutch boy. I never could understand it. You’d think with all that muscle he’d have a cool hairdo, but he had a Dutch boy. Also, he had a lot of zits. Where a man of his age got all those zits and muscles who knew?
“Back from doing hard time again?” I said to him.
Grandma gasped her disapproval in the background.
“Back to kick your little wise ass,” he replied, taking a pull from a can of Bud.
We all took our seats around the table surrounded by fruit wall paper and engulfed in cigarette and cigar smoke. Outside of beers at night with her Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline records, supper with her family was Grandma’s favorite thing to do. None of us prayed before supper, but with Grandma it was something we pretended to do, except Debbie. In the middle of prayer she’d bop her headphones and drool to the biggest chicken leg and snatch it up and start to devour it like she was seeing food for the first time in weeks. I wanted to scream, “What the shit, Debbie! Leave some for the rest of us.”
You’d think since Grandma went all out for her Jimmy released from prison yet again suppers that there would be deep conversation. A place where we could conduct ourselves like elder statesmen and discuss hot-button topics. At the very least maybe someone would complain about the gas crisis, or any kind of crisis. Nope only pure silence. No one said a word. All we could hear was the sounds we made eating the food in a hurry to get to nowhere fast, and the faint sounds of music in Debbie’s ears.
Supper, which was prepared for hours and with great Catholic beer care, was over in a matter of ten minutes. Each of us would line up to rinse our plates and stick them in a dishwasher. The line was Grandma’s cue to open the freezer and get into her tall cans of Bud and pour them into a small glass. It was Debbie’s cue to dance her way back into her room “idiot,” I’d say to myself watching her dance like the whitest person on earth. It was Grandpa’s cue to return to a sun porch that had no sun or porch. I always imagined it happening in my head with the sound of epic classical music. No one seemed to care what the other was doing or had in mind to do. It was expected that we would do what we wanted and it was okay as I was a long for the ride with someone other than myself.
Billy returned from the basement with skates for him, Jimmy, and Phil. Bobby and I high-fived because we were going to be a part of the no skates crew, made me feel tough. Billy ran back down the rickety wood stairs that led to Grandpa’s dark basement and ran back up with a baseball glove, leg pads and a goalie stick.
“No mask?” I asked.
“You don’t need a mask, Gerry.” Billy replied.
“You take slap-shots, what if one knocks me in the face?”
“We wont take shots at your face. I promise.”
I agreed because I trusted him. I trusted him more than any person in my life. He was my brother, my uncle, my dad, all rolled up in one. While my real Dad pulled wires inside manholes in some state I never been to, Billy was there showing me how to be a man. How to take the hits. How to swallow tears before they turned to pain. How to laugh at bruises after I fell down. He gave me my first nudie magazine before I learned how to steal them. I never loved another person in my life more than I did Billy, but I never dared let on that I loved.
I loved my family in secret in my room at night. I didn’t care if half of them were drunks, or they never went to college. I didn’t care that they always seemed to be broke. I didn’t care that some got in trouble with they law. I loved them at night in my room where no one could see me daydreaming about parties, trips to Fenway, and Wiffleball games that had no innings. I loved them because they let me swear. They let me be angry at the Mother I didn’t know and my dad who was never around. They let me watch rated-R movies. They teased me if they caught me looking at a woman. They didn’t crawl up my ass if I said Mass was boring and I wish I didn’t have to go. I loved because they let me be one of the brothers even though I was the nephew. Nephew didn’t hold as much water as brother. It was lesser than in my mind, brother meant something. It was special, made me feel like I belonged . It didn’t matter if they ragged on me to the ends of the earth, I liked it and I gave it back to them and they let me. I learned more about life in our roasting each other sessions than I ever did in school. I wasn’t even a teenager but I already hated school and everything it stood for. I liked what I learned through ball-busting, through disappointment, through pain I couldn’t quite understand or handle yet. I felt at ease with that kind of life. I didn’t like my teachers who preached “peace through understanding.” It was all bullshit to me. At ten I could smell bullshit a mile away, but it was a feeling more than knowledge at my age. I hated the way it made me feel when I listened to people talk like that. Peace to me was, “Hey, little dickhead, go get me some smokes at Lil’ Peach.”
We arrived at Archie’s pond when the park lights came on. It was our little rink of glory I thought. Jimmy set up a goal with a wooden back board so we wouldn’t look for pucks in the snow all night, and he used two large rocks for each end of the goal. I was to defend the air all the way to heaven. It was two on two and I was the goalie for both teams. Bobby and Phil Vs Billy and Jimmy. It was the two sober guys versus the two drunks. I pretended to whack my goalie stick on posts that were not there. Bobby lit a smoke and let it dangle from his mouth. There was a case of Bud chilling in a snow bank to the side of the iced over pond. Jimmy skated over to the box and opened three of them and put them in the snow.
They flipped sticks to see who would take out the puck first. Bobby and Phil won and readied themselves. Billy and Jimmy skated backwards to defend me and the net from the coming onslaught of shaved ice flying in the air.
“Let’s go, shitheads!” I yelled, acting like I was the biggest bad-ass goalie the NHL had ever seen.
Bobby with cigarette dangling from his mouth and a head of thick black hair under the glow of the park lights nodded at me like I was about it get it and get it good. Bobby passed the puck to Phil and it was on.
They skated towards me like a couple of trains. Ice flying up from the pond, swooshing skate sounds, then the sound of wood slamming rubber and a thud off of Billy’s chest. I don’t know how they did it, pucks hitting their bodies and no equipment but skates and sticks, but the bruises and pain meant nothing to Billy nor Jimmy.
Billy took the puck and skated past Bobby and Phil’s sticks slapping at the ice. I laughed at the sight of Bobby skating in brown shoes, then I stopped once I noticed my snow shoes. Jimmy skated to a beer and pounded it as Billy swirled in circles, his military black hair glowed under the park lights.
“Time out!” Billy shouted.
“What the fuck for?” Bobby asked.
“We started playing five seconds ago!” Phil said.
Billy and Jimmy put down two Buds each in under a couple of minutes, opened new ones and stuck them in the snow. The beers had no effect on either of Billy or Jimmy’s skating. They drank all day and night but skated like Orr and Esposito. Phil and Bobby slapped their sticks on the ice to let them know they were ready.
“Let’s fucking go!” Bobby shouted.
They looked far off in hole full of light. A light surrounded by a thick darkness. The New England air picked up and found its way inside my jacket without me having invited it. Billy slapped his stick on the ice to let everyone know he was ready. He passed the puck to Jimmy and they started skating towards me. Phil broke defense and went at Jimmy. Jimmy snapped the puck over to Billy then he leaned in and checked Phil. Phil went flying into the air, I wasn’t sure if he was ever going to come down. He went up and up, then landed in the snow bank. He looked like hobo Sal Campagna, the town drunk, who was often found trashed and sitting in snow banks outside of the Horseshoe singing Led Zeppelin songs to anyone who’d listen to him. Phil waved from the deepest snow bank to let everyone know he might be okay.
It was up to Bobby and his brown shoes to defend me. Billy and Jimmy passed the puck back and forth to each other with speed. Bobby circled in front of the net readying himself. Jimmy crossed in front of Billy and dumped the puck behind him. Bobby didn’t have a prayer. Jimmy leaned into him with his shoulder. His brown loafers couldn’t grip the ice. Bobby’s head jerked back and I swear he winked and smiled at me before he went full on feet first in the air and into the snow bank. It was up to me to save myself from the coming pain, from the world of hurt, from everything that has happened and will soon happen. Jimmy lost balance and followed Bobby. Before he vanished into the dark and went down into the snow he skated past me chugging a beer with a smile on his face.
The only two people left in the entire moment were Billy and me. He was still young, only twenty-one. The women loved him. His mother loved him. The U.S. government used him. I needed him. He skated so fast that he went by me once and when he came back he was twenty-two years old. Then he circled the air net and came back and hit me with a wrist shot. The puck lifted from the ice and kissed me on the mouth. I fell backwards like a triumphant loser and landed on my back. In the sky I watched a tooth mixed in blood falling back to the earth.
“Score,” Billy shouted before he knew what he had done. Before he turned twenty-three and died in a car accident. Before his head hit a telephone pole and killed him instantly. Before his wake would be a closed casket. Before my grandmother would never be the same again.
“You okay, Gerry?” Billy asked.
I wanted to cry because instant pain shot out from my head, but instead of crying and being sensitive I gave Billy the thumbs up. I held it in like a man. I took my lumps so they would be proud of me. Nephews cry, not brothers. On my back and looking up at Billy’s face I heard a beer can crack open I knew it was Jimmy. I heard skating and no voice I knew it was Phil.
“He’s alright,” Bobby said.
“Ma’s going to fucking kill us,” Phil said.
“Let’s get him home…stupid little fucker,” Billy said pulling me up.
I grabbed my tooth and put it my pocket so Grandma could pretend to be the tooth fairy and leave me baseball card change under my pillow later. Billy grabbed an old T-shirt from the backseat of the car and jammed it in my mouth.
“Clamp down on that shit, Gerry.”
There was only silence on the drive home. In their heads they probably wondered if I’d rat them out to Grandma and they’d get a mouthful from her. They probably wondered if Grandpa would sigh his way into smacking them upside their heads. For men in their twenties and thirties they sure feared him. It wasn’t until later that I found out how he was when they were growing up: mean, abusive, angry. They all suffered their own kinds of PTSD. But they didn’t go to shrinks or take pills, or do talk therapy. They settled their scores with beer, or joining the army, or going to jail, or with silence, or running away on motor bikes.
They helped me up the driveway and the stairs. The old bloody T-shirt sticking out of my mouth. Grandma was like a hound dog for the wounded. It didn’t matter if she was in another room. She could sense it through the walls, through doors, over telephones, through the tapestry. It was no different when my uncles helped me into the the living room. She ran up to me, her face full of fear and confusion.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” she said, which was a favorite of mine. If I wanted to aggravate her I’d reply, “Moe, Larry, and Curly.”
“What did you do to him?” she shouted.
Grandpa walked in with a sigh that stretched the ends of the earth. Debbie looked out her door, the sounds of The Bee Gees “Jive Talkin’” coming out from the crack. My uncles waited for the hammer to fall, their eyes full of fear.
“Nothing,” I said. “I was trying to play and I fell down and hit my mouth on the ice.”
Grandpa turned around and went back to his chair. Debbie’s eyes swirled around in her head like two fish in two different bowls. She made a quick mouse like sound and shut her door. There would be no pain coming down for the uncles. No yelling. Nothing. I saved them from it all.
I don’t know how it happened, but I learned how not to snitch, rat, sell-out those you love just to have your own name in the forefront. I learned what it means to have character. Perhaps it was programmed into me through blood. My grandparents were Depression tenement kids. They learned not to cancel or sell out anyone to get themselves ahead. They earned everything on their own, even if everything was nothing much at all. What they learned was passed down to my uncles, and now it was somehow given to me. I felt like a part of a long tradition that started somewhere in Ireland way back in the 4th century. It was glorious to belong to an unspoken tradition. Grandma said some Catholic crap, then put an ice pack on my lip and nothing else was said about the wrist shot to my chops. I didn’t let them down. Although my smile was twisted and crooked, I remained true. True to my new position in life: I was meant to take the hardest hits I wouldn’t see coming and somehow get back up. I was meant to shut up, take it, and defend. I was meant to be a goalie.