A Dry Past

3 November 2010

The island of playground vibrated with the disjointed popping sound of basketballs. Waves of traffic hugged close to the shore of fencing, their reassuring monotony giving the days inside a protected feel, as if the city itself were agreeing that it was much safer to play pick-up games than to venture into the outside world.
   Tony Silva leapt upward toward the basket in his faded jeans and torn, black sneakers, the ball arched over his head, keys and coins and disposable lighter jangling in his pocket. He was seventeen years old and he didn’t want to be taken for one of the Anglo punks who needed to change into special clothing to sink a running hook in the face of some lanky homeboy cultivating his first, tentative shadow of mustache.
   My brothers and I noticed black dots of stubble peppering his upper lip when he was lying in the dark wooden casket at the back of the Fonseca Funeral Home. We tried not to peer over the lid, but his nose was poking out and didn’t look human and everybody in line was looking at us with these great big marble eyes the Portuguese have. Tony’s icy skin reflected the creamy, polished folds of blue satin lining. Big white lilies with sharp crests popped up all around, but he smelled like dust. And he looked like he was packaged for a long trip.
Not even in his nightmares would Tony have ever sported a suit like the one he had on then. It was charcoal gray with yellowish pinstripes. Like in a big-budget gangster movie musical. Looking at him on the basketball court, you’d have thought his muscular shoulders and arms would have ripped through the seams of any sport coat. But bodies are deceptive like that.
   The game was argued over. While heads shook away curses. Tony grabbed the ball and positioned himself at the foul line, tossing in shot after shot. The players on the sidelines kept eating peanuts, were waiting for either J.K. or Harold to give in. And all the while the traffic drove by the island.
   We wouldn’t have admitted it, but we were jealous of Tony. We couldn’t sink so many foul shots while everybody was arguing. And we couldn’t dunk in one of the rebounds. He’d have been given a chance at the point guard spot on the school team if he weren’t already an anarchic legend. Sometimes, after he made an impossibly off-balance fifteen-footer or driving reserve lay-up, he’d look at you with those green falcon eyes of his, just waiting to pounce on you if you couldn’t censor some smart schoolyard comment. Then all of a sudden his lips would twist into that loopy lopsided smile of his meant to charm everybody. At school, he’d grab your lunch with an inflamed threat about ripping your head away from your neck, and after he’d wolfed it down, buy you a replacement. He’d grin with his rubbery lips while he was patting you on the back. Like it was all a game. And you could either appreciate it or risk getting walloped.
   Sometimes he’d open his mouth and stick out his tongue and there’d be your food all chewed into a brown ball.
Whenever Tony noticed a pretty girl walking by the playground, he sang Prince’s ‘Gotta Broken Heart Again.’ His tenor was rough, scratchy, as if he retained sand in his vocal chords, but he could keep a tune. If he was waiting for a game, he’d sing the whole song and maybe J.K. or Big Ben would slap the bleachers for percussion. Tony knew all the words. He had a memory like that.
   He confessed once that no matter how desperate he ever got, he’d never follow in his father’s footsteps. Spitting through the fence and looking us up and down to make sure we believe him, nodding that he was planning on becoming a rock star. Or if things didn’t work out, he’d be satisfied just being a cab driver or maybe a waiter. Didn’t really matter.
His mother had made him swear on the Bible that he’d stay in school and live at home till his eighteenth birthday. My father said it was more for her own protection than anything else. At the time, I didn’t understand and thought it was a bad English translation of whatever he was really thinking.
   There were twenty-two rows in the funeral parlour. I counted them over and over. The air conditioning had given out and the Puerto Rican and Portuguese women were wiping their foreheads with lacy handkerchiefs like the doilies the sparrowish ladies cover pastries with at the Lisbon Bakery on Jericho Turnpike. Rumour had it that Gregory Hill was out on bail by then, $50,000 paid for by an anonymous donor. But he’d never stand trial. There’d be a plea bargain and he’d get a suspended sentence.
   Even after he was cleared, Gregory’s parents treated him like he was tainted with a blood disease nobody ever dared name. So at age seventeen he stuffed his Flaubert and Victor Hugo novels into a canvas bag and grabbed the E subway train into some neighbourhood of Manhattan where either nobody noticed such illnesses or everybody had one or another of them. The West Village maybe. That was the rumour at least. We had never been there so we wouldn’t have had any idea where to begin looking. Many years later, I ducked under the awning of an art gallery in Chelsea during an impossibly bright sunshower and there he was behind a desk in a fancy suit not so different than the one that held Tony at his funeral. They were coming back in style then.
   In the casket, it looked as if whatever invisible ether had made Tony Tony had evaporated without a trace. For one thing, he wasn’t glaring or smiling. His lips were sculpted into a kind of contented pucker, as if he had caught his breath before saying something angelic. His long eyelashes fluttered out like perfect cilia above crazy, pink, bulging eyesacks. His face was too long, like maybe they had trouble getting his mouth to close or certain parts of his jaw to fit just right. Apparently that’s what happens when all your bodyweight crashes against a tile floor with your face in between. Thinking about that too much is why I started counting those pews.
   Tony made pocket money by driving his uncle Manuel’s taxi for a couple of hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. A rich young stockbroker in Brooklyn Heights with a thing for barrel-chested Latin immigrants waited for Manuel under her black sheets on those nights. They screwed for an hour then watched Seinfeld reruns.

You couldn’t see where the knife had made the opening which allowed life to swirl out of him, of course. But we guessed that below the green paisley tie the would was patched and powdered and refrigerator-cold like the rest of him.
Gregory Hill was the only black kid in the French Club. I had the club’s advisor, Monsieur Miller, in ninth grade. I overheard him saying to Mr Coleman, the driver’s ed teacher, that Gregory was a brilliant student, one of a kind. The only one who ever used the subjunctive correctly. Was going to sojourn in France one day, too. And the French liked black people, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson.
   The way he said it made me think that nobody in our neighbourhood liked them even a little bit.
   Gregory walking down the hall with a pile of monster textbooks and notebooks balanced on his hip, held back by the spindly buttress of his bowed arm. A tyranny of footsteps lurking behind. Solemn eyes bearing shame. Daring not to turn till books and papers explode forward. The triumphant laughter of manufactured amusement. Got him again! Back-patting boys disappearing into the crowd of shuffling students. A teacher stooping to help.
   All those disjointed notes across the dirty restroom-yellow vinyl of the school floor made you wonder why he bothered.
Most of the basketball players called Tony, Tony-S. It was better for shouting across the playground. And the rusty-haired old man, Belden, who held court when he wasn’t complaining about rent control at City Hall, could use it in his raps. Most nobody got in Tony-S’s way, on or off the court. Kind of gangly and crazy even with all those muscles, like he was made for dancing some macho lambada all his own. With a jangly, bobbing walk. Always moving, jumping, twisting, like maybe there was some gyrating spark at his center that would never be cooled. You couldn’t imagine he’d turn up so perfectly confined in that casket. Falsely perfected by all that powder and make-up. I was tempted to smear my finger across his cheek or maybe poke his chin to see if some lingering nerve would make him twitch even a little, like those sliced frogs in biology class. But all those Portuguese eyes behind us . . .
   Tony’s floppy brown, music-video-messy hair always slapping over his forehead when he walked, of late greased around the sides with something smelling like caulking. His hands stank like that, too, from wiping his fingers through. You sniffed it in when he popped you on the chin, daring you to say that there was something you wanted from him.
His eyes would bug out when he ate, like he was asking himself some daring question or was just barely stifling a shout. He liked the school’s spaghetti and grilled hot dogs and veal parmigiana. And the square hamburgers with gray dribblings of fat, which the posted menu had the nerve to call Salisbury Steak. But if there was something he didn’t want, he’d make you watch him while he gobbled your down. Freshmen boys blanched till they grasped the idea of the game.
Maybe Tony could have become a model if he’d learned to walk with less energy and fit neatly inside a 35mm grid. The Portuguese and Latino girls, some of the blacks, too, thought he was louco but handsome.
Teachers sent him into a trance. He’d slouch back into his chair and suck on his pen like the ink was honey. Boredom paled his face until he latched onto a daydream of basketball. The bell was the only way to get him back from that. When it rang, he’d kind of slither out of his chair, yawn and pretzel his arms behind his back to get his circulation going and to show us just how sick he was of daily incarceration. Once in History class he must have dreamed the period was over. He swirled up, wriggled around and cracked the vertebrae in his neck by cocking his head all the way forward, Egyptian-dancer like. Mr Trainer snapped off his glasses and furrowed those white caterpillar eyebrows of his. Did Tony have a pressing problem he wanted to share with the class? When the bell rang for real that day, Tony sat up, gripped his chair and looked around till we had all popped up and he knew it was safe. It was the first and last time I was him intimidated. Only gym gave him pleasure. But it was only three times a week.
   How he passed through school each year without being left back was a mystery that could only be answered in the school boardrooms of large American cities.
   The game never did get going again. Harold wouldn’t give in and left with his ball. J.K. sat smoking on the bleachers.
Tony left the playground and started to walk home the long way, by Miller Avenue so he could buy some Camel Lights at the Italian deli. A pack with one cigarette missing slipped out of his pants pocket with some change when he fell to the kitchen floor. Getting them meant that he could cut back toward his house by the high school. Occasionally you know the right way to go, but most of the time you haven’t got a clue.
   Reading Education Sentimentale by Flaubert with the help of a tiny purple dictionary, Gregory was by himself, sitting cross-legged on the field behind the school gymnasium, down near the steps into his home street, Greenway Drive. Afterward, people all said they knew. Had that plaintive, cottony voice, was always turning away like you had the secret he needed to reach adulthood but was afraid to ask about. His parents should have tried some cure when he was little, before his habits were imprinted on his brain. The public school had had psychiatrists of staff, and maybe it’s true that they weren’t that good but they were free.
   Mr and Mrs Gill claimed they didn’t know. Sure he mumbled French idioms to himself during dinner, but was that any   indication? Mr Gill stopped paying attention to him early. Not the kind of boy a father reaches without a long and lonely uphill climb. Early on, there were constant sideways looks exchanged between mother and father. Assurances held back, enthusiasms stifled. Frustrations ending in beatings when Gregory was little. Neighbours said he didn’t scream, he screeched. Like a tropical bird. Nobody knew what it was he was trying to say in that avian language. Or who he thought might answer him.
   Nights afterward my father could hardly look at me. I’d say goodnight and he’d sort of lift his nighttime glass of hot milk and rum above the back of his Newsday like he was toasting an invisible guest. Or, if my mother had settled nearby with her crocheting, he’d make an extra effort to finally look at me in the eye to show her he wasn’t afraid of our connection at all. Before bed, my mother would hold my face in her cold hands and give me clinging kisses on both cheeks, like the ones she gave her orphaned nieces from Porto meant to watch over them when she wasn’t there. You didn’t need to hear her or understand Portuguese to know she was whispering to God to protect her strange little boy from all those things that could get him in New York. In 1981. Not like back in her mythical, whitewashed ivory crown of a village perched on that serene mountaintop overlooking the Spanish border.
   Imprisoned by her hands, I’d close my eyes tight and make believe the darkness confirmed that none of this was happening. I knew that my parents were trying, but the words wouldn’t form and I’d have to do the talking for all of us sooner or later.
   Mrs Gill explained that Gregory had always been ‘a little nervous and shy’ to anyone who brought the subject up. She’d hesitate, fawnlike, before disclosing her description, then shrug like it wasn’t of any use to speak. When pressed further she’d offer an awkward smile, like maybe if you looked at him from some upside-down angle you might see that Gregory possessed an incipient charm.
   Gregory-thin, naturally coordinated, gifted with a streamlined, foal-like musculature, but compelled to hide himself below woollen sweaters even on the hottest days. Green almond-shaped eyes that led to questions about a possible Afro-Asian heritage.
   He wore insect-eye tortoiseshell glasses and, even when you were talking to him, had a tendency to slip one or two carefully studied steps behind you. He never laughed or swore or ran, had had his overt enthusiasm trained out of him. He touched the backs of chairs before sitting down as if he had to constantly verify the presence of the real world. Strange fantasy secrets seemed to seal his forever pact with silence. Like when we all learned over the school intercom that Mrs Olivetti, the girls’ gym teacher, had given birth to a boy and he started humming the Marseillaise real softly to himself while curling his lips toward a bemused smile.
   Sometimes at night, reading in bed before sleep, when death is only a single page of darkness away, I wonder why his mother abandoned him after all those years of uphill struggle.
   Just after I got my learner’s permit, we were driving around near Jones Beach when the car next to us crushed a terrier of some sort. Gregory hid his eyes in his hands and sobbed.
   He opened up once to me and said in his carefully moderated voice that he daydreamed about growing up South Africa or Namibia and fighting for a country. On my fifteenth birthday, he gave me triangular stamps from Mozambique because they had brilliant pictures of iridescent honeybirds and he knew that I occasionally went birdwatching with my brothers. He spoke French to people who teased him. He knew they didn’t understand. But that, I suppose, was the point.
In a corner of my basement I goaded him into looking at pornographic photos for the first time, men bowed back, hoisting up powerful erections. I was calculating and casual. He stared at me with a criminal look in his eyes, then dashed home for the safety of his familiar regrets. I felt the weight of our solidarity at the back of my throat. Affirming an identity to yourself can have unforeseen consequences for somebody like Gregory. We didn’t talk much after that.
   Tony’s family lived in a big old clapboard house behind Vito’s Restaurant on Mineola Avenue, and the baked ziti and pizza scents that had come to inhabit their walls and furniture would never been exorcised. Mr Silva hailed from the arid city of Beja in the southern interior of Portugal and Mrs Silva from Fajardo on Puerto Rico’s north coast. It was the climatic differences that produces their arguments, even the bruises and burns on her arms, Mr Silva claimed. How could he be expected to get along with a woman born in a rain forest? They had four children, Tony the oldest. Their limbs were all too long, and the protruding, bug-eyed, questioning face that Tony made when he ate had solidified in varying degrees in each of they younger Silvas as their normal, resting expression. Mrs Silva’s fidgety anxiety in her children’s presence, her lowered eye, her yearning gentility all gave you the feeling that her family embarrassed her. A long depression following the birth of her youngest took her appetite and left her with skeletal arms and wrinkled, turkey skin. Waxy blue veins shone through on the undersides of her wrists and she often glazed around as if astonished to still be in this world.
Mr Silva was a plumber for the town of Hempstead. He went barechested in summer, the black hairs on his chest and shoulders matted and sweaty. He never learned any of our names and frightened us all. Tony used to say you could hear the Miller and Super Bock beer sloshing in his stomach whenever he came near. And that it was a good thing, a jungle drumbeat of warning.
   Mr Silva didn’t come to the funeral. Nobody knew why but we all tacitly acknowledged it was because he was drunk. Mrs Silva sat with her three youngest, clutching with those bony, shrunken hands onto her black leather bag like it was going to fly away at any moment, the kids’ faces all asking those protruding questions. It scared me the way she gripped Tony’s head and whispered conspiratorially to him. My mother stood at attention behind her and led her away when the ceremony was about to begin.
   Was it significant at all that the game had never really ended at the playground? And if it had gone on would Tony have sauntered home a different way, and the funeral and Gregory Hill’s arrest and my mother hugging Mrs Silva would all have never happened?
   Those questions meant a lot to me for about a year, conjured up repetitive nightmares. Then the spectrum of tempting possibilities faded away and the past became dry and sepia-toned and varnished – what it was and what would never be changed and what we’d tell other people who hadn’t been there.
Our damning secret was that we treasured the one meaningful event that had ever happened in our neighbourhood. This unspeakable admission played like an anxious, unacknowledged pedal point for weeks, and when it was finally covered by the normal droning melodies of school and home, the single date of Tony’s death was highlighted in thick red on our timeline of forever boredom: May 6, 1981. Life was always a little safer afterward. As if a powerful necromancer who had threatened all our futures had been vanquished. But we were at an age when we craved danger. The year crept slower toward graduation without his excitement.
   Gregory Gill remembered most all of it. In the hospital emergency room, holding his hand over his ripped, bloodshot eye, he repeated over and over to the resident on duty that it was self defense. It was his mother who must have gotten him the cardigan-sweatered lawyer from Manhattan with the long blond hair tied in a ponytail. Who else would’ve called?
A few years later Gregory’s sister Linda informed me in an adamant voice that the lawyer was just like Gregory, one of them, you understand. She flipped her wrist and batted her eyes to make sure we’d get her meaning. Like me, you mean, I said. She blinked her startled eyes and looked around for someone to nudge. That was how my youngest brother found out. My father had wanted him spared the burden till he was eighteen.
   There Gregory was, sitting in the field behind the school, pencilling translations from his dictionary onto the margins of L’Education Sentimentale. He saw Tony from a long way off, fought his urge to stare. But the tugging pace of his heart pulled his eyes from his book. He said ‘hi’ to fill in the castigating silence. Tony nodded toward him. Who you saying ‘hi’ to? You, just to be friendly. Me? You want to be friendly to me? Gregory was saying that he’d just go back to reading and was that OK – Ça va? What did you say? Just was it okay. Yeah, it was fine, but if he really wanted to be friendly, something else might be better. Tony cupped his hand under his balls so that there’d be no doubt.
Mrs Gill had taken Linda shopping to Macy’s at Roosevelt Field. Gregory’s room was in what should have been a kitchen pantry. People said they could’ve added on another real room, that they had the money since Mr Gill’s direct-mail business had taken off, but that they treated Gregory like a temporary visitor whom they didn’t really want but had a religious obligation to accept. It had a small window that looked out on the side yard where Mr Gill had parked the old Rambler for the last time. For spare parts it was to be. After a while, when its wheels had been stripped and it had rusted beyond hope, it settled in to its neighbourhood role as an urban sculpture.
   The bedroom door was shut and locked. Mrs Gill had suggested the lock because she preferred not to accidentally find Gregory with something she shouldn’t see.
   Nobody in the neighbourhood said they heard a sound. But the window in Gregory’s room had been shattered. Tony’s hand, palmed over Gregory’s face, had prevented him from screaming through the open frame. There were blue and yellow bruises on his cheeks for a week afterward. His collarbone and a rib were broken. The cornea on one of his eyes got torn pretty badly. Human tissues are surprisingly fragile when not made up for primetime television.
   The knife was on top of a yellow plate next to the last slices of cake Mrs Gill had baked.
   Afterward, Gregory would say he didn’t know where he got it. Deflated, panicked, he sat at the edge of Tony’s stain of blood, so silent that it was hard to tell what kind of voice might come out. His crusted fingers knotted together as if he was praying or locking inside his stomach the knowledge of whatever had happened. He never cried. Two big white medics, both with mustaches, walked him into the ambulance.
Mrs Silva was visited by the police. She said she knew it was terrible news. Tony had been conceived before her marriage and drew bad things to him. He wasn’t ever gonna live a long life. Afterwards, on those muggy New York summer evenings when it seems our lives are endless, we sometimes saw her sitting on her porch. But she never talked to anyone except to her three youngest.
   Though all the city tabloids called it a racial incident, she was all too aware of Gregory’s reputation and formed her own scenario.
   Mr Silva stopped drinking and managed to find his wife’s image of God, coming to believe that Tony’s death was a message from Him on the need to live a righteous life. He now does all the plumbing and some of the carpentry for the Our Lady of Grace church in Floral Park and only charges half for labour. Despite his wife’s inattention and his own inclinations, he neither raises his voice nor lifts a hand against her. I guess you can change sometimes if it’s a question of survival.
   The Gill’s house is still there, and Gregory’s room is back to being a pantry for a Thai family from the Bronx. Pungent ginger and lemon grass smells come from there now, at all hours of the night and day. One morning when we walked by, we found that the Rambler sculpture was gone. In its place was this gawky plant with orange tubular flowers. Nobody knows where Mr and Mrs Gill went. My mother sees Linda now and then at the Pathmark supermarket, but doesn’t talk to her.
   I brought Gregory some French literary magazines which I found at an Italian bookstore of Fifth Avenue when he was out on bail and staying with his lawyer. He said merci but would only let me into the foyer. His attorney had said not to have guests. We stood talking in hushed, awkward voices for a few minutes. A black patch covered his right eye. He’d have an operation. It was feeling okay.
   After I had a lover for the first time, we’d go to the old neighbourhood sometimes and I’d show him to the island playground. On nights when we’d secretly make love in my old bedroom under my childhood quilt, I’d daydream about those days and not be able to recognize the kid I was, as if that iron bind on my heart had never really been there because here I was in love now, lying with a lifelong friend, safe and secure. People forget how it was. It’s like a kind of grace maybe that they do.
   In front of the playground, in our car, I’d think of Tony and Gregory, what happened that day in the kitchen of the Gill’s house. And the ripped boy hugging the floor, covered with both their bloods mingling together and as mixed up as everything else except the local newspaper headlines. That ghostly scene infiltrated my mother’s and father’s thoughts, too, every time they looked at me from my darkened doorway. But parents are powerless after a certain point, and they never spoke about it.
   My lover and I would invariably watch a game or two at the old island playground, and I’d remember Tony’s loopy smile. It fled his face for a moment as he tugged his hands back through his hair, hesitating on the Gill’s steps so he could look around for those watchful, Portuguese eyes. Inside, behind the closed door, his walk was wild, confident, and he discovered his grin again, because letting go for the first time and playing for real was going to be a relief. Gregory’s hands were dangling by his sides, and his beseeching, expectant expression was asking this basketball star for the secret, the password he had always wanted and never received. He closed and locked the door to the pantry. A blow hammered his back. He gripped the ground, turned. Tony was shouting that he was no faggot’s friend, so he better suck it, choke on it now, and there was no getting away till he got what he wanted no matter how much it hurt and how much whimpered begging he heard. Gregory gave a dry shriek till Tony tossed him against the wall by the window. His collarbone and rib snapped under the force. His terrified glance caught a rivulet of blood snaking across his wrist. A hand palmed over his face cut his eye and held his screams, and a feverish voice was shouting for him to take it, take it, take it now, till the grip was loosened and a slap was stinging his cheek and Gregory was racing into the kitchen and holding the knife with both hands and thrusting it as hard as he could into Tony’s chest when he leapt into the air after him.
   It felt horribly right in the moment afterward, Gregory told me before he caressed the lawyer’s door closed. Like a golden regret you’d polish forever because it meant you had a right to be alive.

Michael Fieni