Short Fiction/Part Two
At Fort McHenry it was so hot I could rub inside my elbow and roll up little balls of sweat and dirt. A black fly bit my left ankle right through the sock. The flies came in late August, like it was their vacation. I was on the grass near the sea wall, where I loved to be, alone. Tug boats made big waves in the harbor that splashed against the wall. Gulls swooped. Ted told me about the swallows, the littler faster birds with split tails, how they never landed and ate bugs that jumped up from the grass. They made sharp turns, low to the ground, fast as bullets and even drank harbor water without stopping. I wondered, Did swallows ever sweat? It was hot but it wasn’t the heat, it was the “hume-a-diddy-tee.” That was Ted trying to be funny. He claimed water in the air made it all sticky. “You can breath water like fish do, Andy” he said, “did you know that?” One thing sure, I knew summer was over. “Done and done,” as Ted would say. No more back and forth under water at Riverside Pool for me, just to see how long I could hold my breath.
That night alone in Ronnie’s room I slid the radio dial across the stations looking for The Lone Ranger. I loved that show. When Alice sent me up there for punishment it was pure pleasure in disguise, like Brer Rabbit in the brier patch. I had saved a bunch of Sunday comics just for punishment situations, so I’d have something I liked to do. I drew Little Audrey without tracing, just by looking back and forth from the comics. She was easy—circles mostly—but I wasn’t good enough yet to draw Ozark Ike, who looked almost like he was real-life.
The Lone Ranger music came on at seven-thirty and I tried to draw him from memory. Got his face and hat and mask almost perfect, but Silver’s back legs gave me a big-time fit. That horse came out looking like a giant muskrat. Meanwhile, my stomach growled from being sent off to bed without supper. What happened next I don’t know, must have gone to sleep. Then morning came and my stomach hollering woke me up. I loved breakfast, especially at Alice’s—eggs and bacon and white milk gravy over biscuits—she was five times the cook Momma was, even on a bad day.
On one of Ted’s Saturday Evening Post magazine covers—he kept piles and piles of them—bright sunlight comes in the huge living room window. The family is dressed for church, and most of them head out the door, except the daddy—who looks like Ted. That daddy, he’s slunk down in his chair with the Sunday funnies, and you can tell by his face he’s in big trouble. Mr. Norman Rockwell, the best drawer in the world, drew that. There was always a story in one of his pictures because of how he made the faces, the expressions on the faces, and the way people sat and stood and dressed. Just by looking you knew exactly how it was all going to turn out. His pictures were funny, too—but not just funny.
Ted’s ugliest pigeon was his best one and for some reason he was the only one I wanted to draw. Ted called him Mister de Leon, after a Spanish guy who discovered the world. Mister de Leon was the biggest pigeon I ever saw, and he had two shades of brown feathers and one white spot just under his beak. I tried to draw him like Mr. Rockwell would, but he moved around too much. Waddled when he walked. But that thing could fly. No matter how far Ted took him on race days, he’d find his way back to the roof coop faster than real. Forty, fifty miles sometimes. Won all the races. Beautiful in the air, but—like I say—not much to brag on on the ground.
As usual Ted’s pigeons were every which way all over the roof. He had the coop doors open and used a long handled scraper to clean out the mess. Birds were perched on Ted’s shoulders and one on his head. You could tell they were glad to see him. “A pigeon is lazy,” he said. “Won’t take the time to clean up after itself.” Ted had carried feed up in a fifty-pound sack and sat it off to one side. He took the garden hose and washed out the coop, then filled the drinking troughs. “Serious, Andy,” he said. “It’s a fact. Watch ’em in the park. A pigeon won’t fly if it has a choice. A pigeon’d rather stroll anytime than lift a wing.”
Ted did a special wave and his pigeons took off and flew huge oval patterns over the rooftops, all together, in perfect time. The sky was a deep blue with three clouds out over the harbor. A skipjack slid by on the water. Some guy five roofs down the block used a towel to wave his birds off, then he whistled once and they mixed in with Ted’s flock. Ted laughed and watched them all circle together. He said, “Gotta remind coop pigeons to exercise, otherwise—like some women—they get fat fast.”
Ted put shallow birth nest cups in the coop for the momma pigeons about to have babies. He filled their feed boxes. “Yeah, you gotta keep ’em happy,” he said, pigeons and women.” Ted looked at me but I didn’t say nothing, so he kept on. “I learned about pigeons from pigeons,” he said, “but women—well, I learned about women from pigeons, too.” Ted did a big sigh. “Be careful when you marry, Andy. If you marry. Impossible to take an unhappy woman and make her happy. No man can do that.” He smiled. “Best a man can do is find a happy woman and keep her busy.”
Ted held up a handful of feed and let the grains fall through his fingers. Even as high as his birds were you could tell from how their wings dipped they heard the grain hit the roof. Beautiful. The guy down the block whistled three times, two long and one short. Ted quick did a code whistle, too—five short and one long—and the mixed flock split up and swooped back to their roosts. Somehow Ted got five of the other guy’s birds mixed in with his. He had won a pigeon war and I didn’t even know there had been one going on. “The main rule of pigeon raids,” Ted said, “is you have to return captives to their rightful owner.” He shooed the prisoner birds off the roof and sent them home. Ted was no schnocker, the name he called the guys who’d cheat and keep a bird that wasn’t his. Damn right. Ted was no mutt.
When it came to girls Ted was just like my Daddy, and according to Momma that was the problem, or at least one of the problems. She claimed other women were the main reason she chased him off—that and the drinking. Ted was no drunk, but more than once I spotted him at Cross Street Market messing with some girl. That one day I was watching a guy hose off the concrete floor down at the fish end and Ted was with Rhonda Duffington working in her daddy’s fish stall. He didn’t see me. All five Duffington sisters worked at in family business, but Rhonda was the best looking one. She was married to some Polack guy, but everybody still thought of her as a Duffington anyway. “All them girl’s,” Daddy said once, “now there’s wall-to-wall beautiful.”
I had ducked behind the fish stalls and snuck up the aisle where they keep the trash and worked my way close enough to the Duffington stall to try and find out exactly what was what with Ted and Rhonda. First thing I heard was her saying, “My marriage ain’t no business of yours, Ted.” But meanwhile Rhonda smiled at him like he was Clark Gable.
Ted laughed. “Girl, do you know the Italian way to keep a man happy?”
She said, “Mister, you here after seafood or what?”
“Sort of,” he said, and pointed to Rhonda’s fish display laid out on crushed ice. “Your creatures look awful puny, though. Cloudy eyes.”
Rhonda looked at him like her brain was thinking about anything but fish, maybe some kind of delicious dessert. She batted her eyelids and said, “You gonna be at Lombardi’s tonight, Hon?”
“I can get out,” was all she said back.
Ted did his silly grin. “Then who knows, I might just show up for a drink or three.” He winked at her. “Now let me explain about pasta.”
“You ain’t I-talian!”
Ted put his hand on Rhonda’s arm and looked in her eyes. “Damn straight I am, girl!” That was a lie. Ted was no Wop—he was pure Bohunk—but you could tell by the way she ate him up with her eyes that Rhonda believed his every word.
Part three of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.