Joseph Lombo's work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories Magazine, Sub-Lit Journal, The Northville and Chaffey Reviews, BAP Quarterly, The Shine Journal, Word Catalyst and The Wilderness House Literary Review. He has also received the Toni Libro award for Outstanding Masters Thesis from Rowan University.
I took forever to walk down the stairs. I kept waiting for a voice other than the one in my head to tell me to go back to bed. When I reached the bottom I was still doing all the talking so I told myself to shut up. I rubbed my eyes and yawned one last time. Then I marched to the kitchen in baby steps.
As I got closer, I could hear my mom and dad talking, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. When Mom saw me she got up from the table. I was too tired to care what they had been talking about. I was convinced I was the only kid in Northeast Philly who had to be up at seven in the morning during summer vacation.
The kitchen reeked of cigarettes, coffee grinds and my omelet beginning to burn. Even though it was late July, Mom shivered inside the yellow wool bathrobe she wore every morning. The plastic soles of her blue fuzzy slippers scraped against the linoleum as she shuffled between my dad's coffee cup and the stove. I sat down in my assigned seat directly across from the old man. He was invisible from the neck up, his head somewhere inside a smoky cloud. His rough, calloused hands took turns raising massive doses of caffeine and nicotine up to his hidden mouth.
Even that early in the morning it was hot. I started sweating, which irritated the rash on my back. I tried not to scratch, but I couldn't help it.
“Stop that,” Mom said. “Didn't you put the lotion on that I gave you last night?”
“I couldn't. It made me sneeze. Maybe I need to see a doctor.”
“He'll tell you the same thing I did. Use the lotion.” She pointed her spatula at me. It was starting to melt.
“Lower that flame for chrissake. High isn't the only setting on that dial,” the old man barked.
I wondered how he managed to see anything from inside that cloud.
I was itchy and tired, and it was the old man's fault. All spring he'd told me it was time for me to get a summer job. “How old is he going to be this summer, fourteen?” he'd ask my mom.
“Thirteen,” she'd reply.
“Same difference. I got my first job when I was his age.” Depending on the number of beers in front of him, his summer jobs ranged from mild mannered paperboy to hard boiled mob informant posing as pinsetter at a local bowling alley.
To get him off my back I knew I had to at least try to get a job. I decided to ask Mrs. Kassie, who owned the grocery store around the corner from my house, if she needed a delivery boy. Every night after dinner the old man sent me there to get his dessert—- a pack of Winston's.
It took me awhile to work up the nerve to ask Mrs. Kassie for a job even though I was sure she'd turn me down. My arms were so skinny they got tired lifting a fork. When I finally asked, she lowered her reading glasses and stared at me for a long time. Then she grimaced, which made the lines in her face seep through the heavy makeup she wore and caused the lipstick at the corners of her mouth to climb halfway up her cheeks. Then she took a deep breath and sighed.
“Come here,” she said.
When I inched forward the perfume she wore by the gallon rushed up my nose. For the first time in my life I stopped a sneeze. I worried my heart might stop beating because the nuns at school had warned us that might happen if we ever held back a sneeze.
“These are for your dad, right?” Mrs. Kassie tapped the pack of cigarettes on the counter with nails so long they looked like they could slice through the packaging.
I nodded, clutching my chest like I'd seen people who were having heart attacks on TV do.
“Then you're hired. Be here at eight the day after school ends.”
I was the only kid who wasn't excited on the last day of school. I knew my summer was going to suck because I had to work.
Having a job was even worse than I'd imagined. In the six weeks since I'd started working, I still hadn't gotten used to getting up early. I had a rash from sweating so much, and the few muscles I had ached all the time. The first thing I did when I got up every morning was grab my balls and cough, determined to find the hernia I knew I was developing, so I wouldn't have to go to work anymore.
I started hacking when the old man lit another cigarette. He pulled his ashtray closer. When I kept coughing he muttered something before pushing his chair back so hard it slammed into the radiator cover. He struggled to lift the window—-it kept coming off its track. As the window rose, paint chips fell and the sill clanged and buckled.
When the old man finally got the window open the smoke began to clear, and I stopped coughing. In the meantime, a sour smell invaded the kitchen, reminding me that it was trash day. Out on the sidewalk the trash had ripened inside animal ravaged plastic bags and lidless aluminum cans. The trash men were the only black people who could safely walk through Bridesburg, but even they knew they'd better keep moving.
Mom turned on the stove, which mixed the competing smells in the kitchen into one nasty odor. To avoid smelling anything at all, I tried breathing through my mouth. It worked, but I had to keep opening it wider in order to breathe.
“Stop yawning, boy.” The old man kicked at my feet with his work boots.
“I'm as awake as I'm gonna be. That commotion at Allied kept me up last night.” Our street was bordered on two sides by chemical plants. At least once a month there was a fire or explosion at one of them.
“That was nothing. They sounded the all clear in under an hour.”
“Maybe it was nothing this time, but one day we're all gonna get blown to holy hell.”
“I'm going to stick hot peppers on your tongue if you keep cursing,” Mom said.
“Hell isn't a curse.”
“To hell it ain't, if you use it right,” the old man added. “Besides, getting blown up isn't what you should be worrying about.”
What worried me at that moment was the omelet Mom put in front of me. One side was burnt; the other wet and runny. Stuck in between was a half melted piece of American cheese.
“All this talk about explosions has ruined my appetite.”
“We don't waste food around here, mister. Be grateful you're not starving like some kid in India.”
I forced a tiny piece into my mouth while Mom watched. I hoped the charred parts would deaden my taste buds, but when they didn't I guzzled orange juice until the whole mess slid down my throat.
“Like I was saying,” the old man said through a cough. He lit another cigarette and then waved the match in front of him until it went out. Rings of smoke rose toward the ceiling where they merged with the yellowing tiles above his head. “When I was talking to the neighbors last night a few of them told me they heard a nigger family might be moving into the 'Burg. Think about that, boy. What's worse? Getting blown up or being invaded by niggers?”
“Well, when you put it that way.”
“Joe, you know I can't stand that N word. They're people just like we are,” Mom said.
“Okay, coloreds might be moving into the 'Burg, better? Whatever they're called they're not just like me. This neighborhood will start going down the toilet the minute one of them moves in. Bridesburg will become another North Philly. Somebody gets raped or shot there every night.” The old man drew so hard on his cigarette he nearly sucked the filter into his mouth. “Joey, that's why I was telling your mother that we might have to move.”
“I thought we said we wouldn't talk about that in front of the kids.”
“What the hell's the difference? Two of them are sleeping. He's gonna be fifteen.”
“I don't think you have to worry, Dad. Only the people already here are dumb enough to live in a place that might blow up. Besides, I think we should move even if the closest black person lives in Africa.”
“See Pat. My son agrees with me. Like I always said, Joey, there's nothing wrong with people wanting to live with their own kind. Why most of them don't want to live next door to me anymore than I want to live next door to them.”
The old man glanced at the clock radio on the kitchen counter, downed the rest of his coffee, and tamped out what was left of his cigarette before getting up. Mom walked him to the door and handed him his lunch. When I was little it would gross me out when they would kiss before he left for work. They don't do that anymore.
After the old man drove away I decided to go upstairs. “Where are you going?” Mom asked.
“Up to my room to listen to some music until I have to leave. I'll use my headphones so I don't wake Mikey or Stevie up.”
“If you have time for that, you have time to wash the breakfast dishes.”
I did a half-assed job on those dishes. I prayed to the brown eyes and the exposed sacred heart in the picture hanging above the sink. I asked Him if I could start the day over and make it a Saturday, but the hands on the clock radio kept moving forward. Mom poured herself another cup of coffee and called her friend Peg. I could overhear their game of who has the worst husband. When she realized I was listening, she took the phone into the living room and turned on the TV.
I didn't feel like going to work, but I figured getting there a few minutes early was better than hanging around the house. On my way out there was a knock on the storm door.
“Don't answer that,” Mom said. Whoever it was knocked again. The windows were open and the TV was on so it seemed stupid to pretend nobody was home. I couldn't see out through the heavy charcoal screen in the storm door so I opened it a crack.
“Hey, son, good morning. We was wondering if me and my crew here could trouble you for a drink of water. It's awful hot today.” He pointed to a yellow trash truck creeping up the street. One of his crew was tossing trash, maggots and all, into the back of the truck. From behind the wheel the driver smiled at me and waved.
“Sure. Give me a minute.” He was nearly inside the door. It was the closest a black man had ever come to stepping inside our house. I couldn't imagine what the old man would do if he were home.
“Mom, the trash men need a drink of water.”
“I'll call you back, Peg. What? The trash men?”
“Yeah, they're thirsty. It must be ninety degrees already.”
“I though they carried jugs of water on their truck.”
“Maybe they drank them already.”
“This early in the morning?” She was walking in circles in the kitchen. The damn scuffing her slippers made was starting to give me a headache.
I opened and closed cabinet doors, looking for the good glasses.
“No, these,” Mom said, pointing to the ones with the faded designs. I filled them with water. When I started dropping the ice cubes in, water spilled over the sides of the glasses and onto the floor.
“Can't you see what you're doing? I don't have time to wax the floor today.”
“It's only water.”
“Didn't I tell you not to answer the door?”
I wanted to put the glasses on a tray so they would be easier to carry but Mom didn't have time to find one. I asked her to help me carry them, but she said she had to start the wash. So I scooped all three up in my hands and walked to the door like a Wallenda on a wire.
“Thank you, son,” the crew chief said. He was the one who had knocked on the door. He waved the others over. They guzzled that water so fast their Adam's apples barely moved when they swallowed. When they finished, the crew chief collected the glasses. Before he gave them back he shook my hand and thanked me so many times I got embarrassed. We both noticed that a few of the neighbors were standing on their front steps watching us.
“We'd better get back to work,” he said.
When I went back inside I braced myself for Mom's inevitable yelling. “I'll wash the glasses before I leave,” I said, hoping that would calm Mom a bit.
“Never mind. I'll take care of it. You'll be late for work.”
I wasn't about to argue with her. I was nearly out the front door when I heard a crash coming from the kitchen. When I ran back Mom was standing over the sink, the Sacred Heart of Jesus looking down at her. She was using a hammer she'd taken from the old man's toolbox in the shed to break the glasses the trash men had just been drinking out of.
“What?” she said when she realized I was watching her. “They're dirty.”
Anne Marie wasn't exactly the girl next door type. For one thing, her house was two doors down from mine on Almond Street in Northeast Philadelphia. For another, she was a pig tailed tomboy who loved belting home runs and catching touchdown passes. For the longest time I didn't even think of her as a girl. But one summer, Anne Marie changed. The pig tails disappeared. She started letting her long, brown hair down or wearing it up in a bun. She rarely played in our pick up games and when she did, her heart wasn't in it.
“I don't care about stupid sports anymore,” she said.
All she seemed to care about was me.
Early that summer evening games of tag evolved into after dark games of spin the bottle. Whenever Anne Marie spun the bottle it found me, no matter where I sat. Rumor had it she threatened to slug any girl who tried to kiss me. She could do it too. She grew up in a house with four brothers.
At first I thought it would be fun to finally kiss a girl I wasn't related to. But it didn't take long for the routine Anne Marie put me through to become a hassle. Before we kissed, she'd jam half a pack of Juicy Fruit into her mouth, and then shove the rest of the pack into mine. When we finally locked lips she'd tickle the roof of my mouth with her tongue. Just as I was about to laugh, she'd jam her tongue deep into the back of my throat. Then I'd gag like I did when the doctor stuck a Popsicle stick in my mouth.
“What's wrong with you?” she'd ask. “That's how they kiss on General Hospital.”
Once Anne Marie arranged it so we were alone inside a fort her brothers had built in her backyard. “I'll show you mine. Then you have to show me yours,” she said.
Before I could answer she pulled her shorts and underwear down.
“Here it is. See?”
I wasn't sure what I was supposed to see, but I knew I was going to have to tell Father Peck about it the next time I went to confession. “I'm not going to show you anything,” I said.
“Someday you will.” As we were leaving she added, “My mom says you'll turn out to be a good catch because you aren't a mommy's boy.”
I didn't tell Anne Marie that my mom said I would marry into that family over her dead body and that she was nothing but trouble.
When Mom got wind of Anne Marie's obsession she looked for any excuse to ground me on some trumped up charge. I had to admit that spending so much time in the house helped Anne Marie get the hint. When I did see her I'd nod or wave just to be polite but she ignored me.
But being grounded so much was also ruining my summer. So one morning, while serving my latest sentence, I bolted out of the house when Mom was screaming at my little brother Steve for spilling lemonade on the kitchen floor she'd just waxed.
I ran down the street as fast as I could. When I passed Anne Marie's house, she was coming out of her alley on a bike. She didn't slow down or try to go around me. If I hadn't gotten out of the way, she'd have run me over. I didn't have time to worry about it, though. I wasn't about to stop running until I rounded the bend. Then Mom wouldn't be able to see me if she looked out the door.
When I turned the corner I stopped to catch my breath. I watched the steam pouring out of Allied Chemical's smokestacks mix with the gray clouds to form a ceiling so low I felt like I could reach up and grab it.
I figured I would hide out at my friend Bill's house. I pounded on his screen door until my knuckles hurt but nobody answered. As I was walking away, I noticed his mom's Nova wasn't parked in front of the house. I decided to wait for him in the park across the street from his house.
That park was really an industrial lot owned by Allied Chemical. About two years earlier Bill's dad had convinced Allied to convert the lot into a playground by offering to manage it.
It was exciting to watch them build the park. One day a steamroller flattened hot asphalt into a basketball court. Junk tires and frayed rope became swings and rope climbs. They raised a huge triangular pavilion out of junk cedar beams and plastic sheeting. But at the time the real eye opener for a kid like me was the yellow submarine. Its body was a huge metal pipe turned on its side and painted yellow. A wrought iron ladder inside led to an enclosed observation deck. A long wooden walkway spanned the rest of the top, leading to a plastic tube through which you could slide down to the ground.
When the park first opened, everybody was happy. But after a while, Bill's dad and the neighbors fought over noise and how late the park should be open. Meanwhile, the older kids started trashing the equipment. Everybody said Allied was going to tear it down and lock the lot up any day now, but that morning the gate was wide open, so I walked right through. Nobody else was around. I went over to the creek that ran between the park and the edge of Allied's plant. The creek, or crick as we called it, had been fenced off when the park was built. The older kids kept cutting holes in the fence so they could hang out there at night. Every time the plant sent somebody out to fix the fence, the older kids cut new holes in it.
That morning the water was bright green, like the anti-freeze that leaked from the junk cars on my block and pooled in the gutter. That creek was a chameleon, taking on the colors of the chemicals poured into it each day.
When I got bored over by the water, I went inside the yellow submarine. The first thing I did when I got in was yell a few times so I could listen to my echo. The voice in my echo didn't sound like mine at all. Then I got lost in the quiet. I couldn't get enough of it. It was a peaceful quiet, not like the occasional lulls in my house. Those were temporary cease fires filled with tension as I waited for the yelling to start again.
The sun wasn't out and it hadn't gotten too hot yet. That meant the stink of urine inside the sub wasn't too strong. I walked around, studying the graffiti on the walls. I didn't understand all of it but if even half of it was true, it was worth looking into. I memorized a few of the phone numbers. I figured I'd sneak up to my parent's room to dial them one afternoon while my mom was watching TV.
Just as I finished memorizing the last number, I heard gravel crunching outside the submarine. I tried to figure out if the sound was coming closer or moving away. After a few seconds, I was sure it was coming towards me. I worried that it might be some of the older kids. If it was, they'd torture me. The crunching was overtaken by muffled voices and occasional giggling. Before I could sneak out of the sub, two arms and legs, followed by another pair of limbs, scampered up the metal ladder.
I tried to sneak out of the sub. When I passed the ladder, I smelled Juicy Fruit.
I hurried up the ladder. When my head peaked through the opening at the top, Anne Marie was sitting next to Ernie, who was building a small fire. Ernie was a young teenage firebug who always wore, regardless of the weather, a black pleather jacket with a chain hanging out of the chest pocket. He never combed his dirty blonde hair, and he spoke with a heavy lisp.
“What do you want, pussy?” he asked. He sprayed so much spit I was sure he'd douse the fire he'd just started. My old man smoked three packs a day, and he didn't own as many matches as Ernie had in the box next to him.
“Nothing. Just wondering who was up here.”
“Now you know. Get lost, you skinny four-eyed freak.”
“Anne Marie, does your mom know you're up here with him?” I asked.
“No she don't,” Ernie snapped. “And I'll know who told her if she finds out.”
Anne Marie cracked her gum and pulled it in and out of her mouth with her finger. She giggled when Ernie lit stick matches on the wooden deck before tossing them into his fire, which was beginning to give off heat.
“Can't you see we want to be alone. Get lost,” Ernie said. He threatened to flick matches at me if I didn't move. I climbed down the ladder. When I got out of the sub, Ernie was standing on the deck, watching me. He began tossing lit matches over the side. One landed next to my foot.
“Hey,” I said.
Ernie and Anne Marie laughed. He somehow managed to light and toss matches with his right hand while keeping his left arm draped around Anne Marie's shoulders. He was a savant with a match.
“What's the matter? My girlfriend wasn't good enough for you?”
“Girlfriend?” I said before shaking my head and walking away. I glanced at Bill's house. The Nova still wasn't there. Then I felt a searing sensation down my back. I shuddered, shook and wriggled like the fish did right after my Dad and I reeled them in. At first, I didn't realize what had happened. Then the pain in my back got worse. When I looked behind me a match fell out of my shirt, hissing when it hit the gravel. I knew I'd been burned. My first reaction was to go after Ernie because I was sick and tired of being picked on. I also knew when the old man found out about this the first thing he'd want to know was what I had I done about it.
I took a few steps toward Ernie, but he kept firing matches at me, so I stopped. I was scared, and I didn't know what to do. I felt the first warm teardrops roll down my cheeks even though I had a huge lump in my throat from trying to hold them back.
I took off running. Behind me I heard Anne Marie yelling, “Run home to mommy, mommy's boy.” As I headed towards my house, I wished I had someplace, anyplace, else to go.