I couldn't see why a thirty-six year old man of my height and vigor should have to get married and have kids all of a sudden, just because his girlfriend turned thirty. Things had been fine the way they were for ten years, with Melanie living in the same building as me and working at the bakery on Court Street, while I was enjoying my job at the copy place farther down past Atlantic Avenue. When I wasn't at work, I saw Melanie or hung out with my buddies in our glorious neighborhood. It was almost as much fun as when I was a kid, when all I had to worry about was playing baseball, or watching the Mets games on TV in my aunt and uncle's apartment, or having to listen to the games at home, because my father hated the Mets and hogged the TV. I missed those days, but the present was okay, too, so why did we have to turn everything topsy-turvy by acting parent-like and old? Melanie didn't want to listen to reason when I suggested that if we ever did have kids, all they would do was run around acting silly all the time and eating like horses, so I stalled, hoping that when Melanie got even older, she would understand that it's best not to mess up a good thing with marriage and infants.
Still and all, I can't keep myself from getting restless sometimes, and almost ruining my life by doing just one thing different. Like not long ago when I agreed to canoe with the coworkers, including this new girl Cheryl who invited me out of the blue during a break, almost like she was flirting with me. When I told her I was scared of the water, she didn't believe me.
"A big hulking guy like you," she said, "scared of a little water. How tall are you?"
"Well, I'm six foot four and a half inches in my stocking feet and boots," I admitted, and she acted thrilled, like she wanted to feel my muscles or something, so after a while I gave in and said I'd canoe as long as there was a boat that could hold me. That got her even more worked up until the boss, Doug, who was jealous maybe, told her to cut it out and get back to work. "You too," he said, making wild eyes at me, like he would fire me if I didn't uncurl my lip. I had a fantasy for a second of pounding him with my fist three times on the top of his head until he was waist high into the floor, but then I reconsidered that action, because if Melanie and me ever did decide to get married I knew I would need that job to feed the kids with. So I dragged myself back behind the counter.
Melanie wasn't happy about the canoeing trip. At my apartment, which is upstairs from where she lives with her father and her stupid mother, she harped at me.
"You are scared of your own shadow," she said. "How are you going to go boating down the rapids?"
"I'll be all right," I said. "Anyway, this girl Cheryl asked me, and the whole crowd is going."
"What crowd? That religious crowd? That manager with the crazy eyes? And who the hell is Cheryl?"
"A new person. Wait, what do you mean I'm scared of my own shadow?"
Melanie ran the water in the sink for no reason and rinsed a cup that was already clean, also for no reason. "You are afraid to get married. You're afraid of everything -- having kids too."
"I'm scared of trucks, I know that," I admitted, leaning against the counter next to her and watching her rinse the clean cup. "But that's about it."
She stopped rinsing at last and faced me. "Why do you want to go canoeing with that crazy bunch anyway? You've never even been out of Brooklyn. You'll get yourself thrown overboard on a turn."
"I've been out of Brooklyn," I said, but she swatted at the air near my face.
"Not really. Think about it. What makes you think you're going to live through this?"
I got mad then, because she had jinxed me by bringing up the second thing I am scared of besides trucks -- dying. So I wandered into the living room and sat near the window to sulk. Soon she tried to make it up to me by hugging my head while I stared down at the trees on Union Street.
"You are going to be fine, I just know it," she said to me. "Go and have a good time then, especially with that stupid new girl. I don't care, you know. I really don't. We can just break up. All I ask is that you don't come home dead, all right?"
I pulled my head away from her. "Don't say dead. I hate dead. And I hate breaking up."
"Sorry, just don't come home converted then, okay? You'll be just fine on that boat."
"Of course I will," I told her. "I'm six foot four in my stocking feet and boots, so how am I going to get converted or drown in that river up there…wherever they're going."
"Exactly. You won't drown at all."
"Those people are nothing to me. I am just using them for their canoes," I insisted, so she pressed her head to my head and laughed. Still, she was quiet after that and wouldn't pull away, so I knew she was still worried, despite my great height.
Melanie was right about one thing: that group was way too religious, since they wanted to pray before we even got into the canoe. I had to sit among them in a circle in the icky sand near the shore while the manager Doug led everyone in prayer. I stopped listening to his words after a while and paid attention to my own heart, which was jumping around in my chest like of its own free will as Doug talked about commending our spirits to the great above or something. So I said my own little prayer in my head, starting with something like, Hey God, I am not ready to commend my spirit anywhere right now, except back to Brooklyn. Let me stick around a while. And get me out of this sand, please.
In the car on the way up, I had sat next to Cheryl in the back seat, and even though I knew that the FDR had turned into the George Washington Bridge, and then into trees all around on the Palisades, otherwise I wasn't paying attention to the scenery. Cheryl talked to me like she was getting to know me, and she was so very happy about everything, and she was really pretty in her purple shorts, but I missed Melanie. Doug was driving, and this other guy Ray, who I figured was Cheryl's boyfriend at first, was in the passenger seat, and another girl, Sylvia, Cheryl's best friend at work, sat next to Cheryl who was sandwiched between us. At one point, while Cheryl talked to Sylvia, she let her leg flop against my leg and it stayed there. I turned my head slowly to stare out the window, and I missed Melanie again.
On that icky sand, after Doug finally got through commending our souls and jinxing me, Sylvia took forever too. Cheryl sat next to me, but a horse fly kept landing on the back of my head and neck, and even though I swatted at him, he circled and came right back at me. Sylvia talked right through my crazy swats, but Cheryl finally slid away on her backside after my swinging hand almost nailed her. Meanwhile the fly wouldn't go after her, just me, like it was personal or something.
When Sylvia finished at last, it was Cheryl's turn to pray, but I stood up, wildly searching the air for the horse fly and trying to smack him when he came at me. Cheryl tried to talk to God about keeping our canoes steady, but she kept backtracking whenever I swung at the air. Then she stopped completely to look at me like I was a weirdo when I hollered, "Ow, you bastard," after the fly faked me out and took a chunk out of my arm. I hurried away, spinning around and wind milling my arms to keep the thing off me.
"I have to use the bathroom."
"There is no bathroom. What bathroom?" Doug called impatiently.
"The one in the woods," I answered. They all laughed, like I was supposed to be above peeing, or like peeing didn't matter in the great scheme of things since they were determined to crack up their canoes and send themselves soaring to the great above, especially that Doug guy, all up on his high and mighty horse. So I beat it out of there, up into the woods, like I just wanted to get out of sight enough to pee comfortably away from their prying eyes, but then I went further up at a running sort of climb, toward what I hoped would be a street, where maybe I could find a cab back to Brooklyn, away from those creeps, including Cheryl. I'd heard her laugh with them when I ran to the woods, and remembered her "you're a weirdo" expression, so I half turned in her direction as I trudged on, and I gave the up-yours sign to a tree, but I tripped over a stump before I could follow through and almost broke my neck.
Of course, I didn't know where I was going, to a road or not to a road, and I also didn't know -- especially after giving them all another up yours sign when I brushed myself off -- if I was ever going to heaven or not. Ever since I was a kid, I'd been scared that God would send me to hell for being such a wise guy with people and getting mad at them so easy and making enemies for stupid little reasons. Doug and his stupid followers, and even -- I gulped, even though I hated her -- that really pretty Cheryl with her leg flopping onto mine, would get into heaven no problem. Meanwhile, maybe God had sent that horse fly to chase after me for leaving Melanie in Brooklyn. So I had the feeling, while I ducked low under a wasp nest, that if I got lost and died in those woods, He'd condemn me to eternal nothingness, and say, "This is what you get, buddy boy. Remember this."
Before I knew it, thinking like that, I couldn't hear the beach any more, the trees were closer together, and there was no sign of any road. It took me at least an hour of climbing straight up before I found myself on a single-lane highway, and it was only then that I stumbled again, this time because I wasn't expecting the flatness. I got up and brushed myself off, happy anyway to be closer to civilization, so to speak. I was sick of the woods, and figured I had about a hundred ticks on me because I felt itchy everywhere. Those things give me the woolies. I shivered and blamed my neighbor Tommy for that, because one time he showed me a tattoo of a tick that he had on his biceps and it was pretty disgusting.
The road curved in both directions, with the woods on my side and high rocks on the other. I went to the right since I figured New York City was that way, but the stupid road curved at least 720 degrees and no cars came by. I was alone, except for myself, and it was only then that I thought about wild animals. Someone in my neighborhood -- I think it was Tommy again -- told me that when he was a kid he saw a deer charge into a fire engine, and I wondered what would happen if I met up with one. I stopped and shivered and listened for the sound of a car or the growl of a deer, but there was nothing and I went on, imagining those flat-leaving punks, probably snuggling in their canoes at that moment, yucking it up with their pal God at my expense.
What they say about country people being more neighborly than city people is a bunch of crock, because while I circled that empty road for about two hours, with no town in sight, only three or four cars came by, and none of them stopped for me when I tried to wave them down. Then after I cautiously waved to one old pick-up truck, it sped up and came right at me. It veered and raced away at the same time that I dove into the gravel off the road. When I looked up, some teenage girl was giving me the finger out the back window.
I brushed myself off and kicked at some rocks, mad because it seemed for sure like it was the day I was going to die. It was four o'clock after all, with no town in sight, and no water either. I would die, and crows would pick me up by all fours and carry me away without a trace. Melanie had been right about me not surviving the trip, but I wasn't mad at her for jinxing me. I missed her instead. When I died I'd even try to visit her as a ghost before I left for good and tell her I agreed to get married and have kids after all. Then again, God was probably pissed at me for swatting at His horse fly and leaving the beach during prayer time, and He wouldn't let me say goodbye to her. He'd make my soul stay put, trapped in my dead body while the crows picked prime meat off me to lighten their load. My only chance that He didn't hate my guts was if He didn't care much for churches or God groups, either, and that He was just a regular-guy kind of God. But if he was a worship-me-or-I will-send-you-to-hell-so-fast-it-will-make-your head-spin God, then I was in trouble. That thought made me shudder, and I whimpered, "No," and kept whimpering at intervals. After all, even though I'm bigger than almost anyone around, I knew then that height meant nothing in the great scheme of things, because who would ever be impressed by how long someone's dead bones were?
Somehow, through all that horror and despair, I sniffled up my courage to keep myself from an attack of all-out blubbering, even though the empty road turned and kept turning for another hour, before finally straightening out in the direction of a town.
Three guys sat along the diner counter, smirking in my direction while I drank a large cup of ice water, and then another, before ordering two burger platters with fries without checking the menu.
"I look like a mess, huh," I said to them at last, because they were staring while I held the icy red plastic cup next to my face. They chuckled to each other and didn't answer me. The waitress was a nice person, at least, and kind of pretty with her dark hair and her greenish bluish brownish eyes. She pointed out to me that I had a couple of leaves in my hair, but she wasn't being smart about it, just helpful. So I told her all about what happened to me, starting with the horse fly on the beach and including the high school girl who'd given me the finger, as well as the three times that I fell, which explained the leaves in my hair and the rocks in my pockets, which the waitress didn't know about. Soon enough she set down my first burger deluxe.
"Wow, I still can't believe you survived out in the wilderness like that," she said by way of making conversation.
"I guess it wasn't all that hard," I answered, already trying to shake ketchup onto my burger, "because I am here in the flesh and blood." I pounded on the bottom of the ketchup bottle. "I'm from Brooklyn, so I can walk pretty much all day, and I can go without food for hours." I reached for a fork so I could loosen up the ketchup with the handle side, but she handed me a used bottle that poured easy -- too easy -- and I wound up flooding my burger.
At this point a customer, some crab of an old man who was at least fifty barked from the other end of the counter that he'd ordered before me, and he wanted to know where his beef stew was. She calmed him down and sighed to me with a smile before walking into the back. I gazed a little at her as she went, but I missed Melanie. After all, I thought, Brooklyn was my home sweet home, and Melanie was part of my home sweet home, so really there was nothing for me to look at any more, and nothing for me to do except marry her and stop thinking about sowing my wild oats.
I smiled about that idea, in the general direction of the old man, who glared back at me about his missing beef stew. I was so deep into my own thoughts and my burger that I didn't see the three guys along the counter get up and surround me. One of them was a big guy, a little taller than me at maybe six-five or six-six. He leaned over my right shoulder.
"You think you're some hot shot, huh?"
"What do you mean," I said, thinking this was all about the old man's beef stew.
"You spend a few hours in the woods and think you're Ewell Gibbons or something, don't you?"
"Yeah, or Jeremiah Johnson or someone," said a smaller guy from near my other shoulder.
"I don't think I'm anyone," I said.
"Yes you do," said the big guy. "You think you're a hot shot, bragging about a little stroll through the woods like it was some life or death experience, man." He stuck his big old bearded face close to my face. I was going to say something about not appreciating that they'd eaves-dropped on my conversation with the waitress, but the big guy went on.
"You know, my auntie died in those woods. She lost her bearings and died out there alone… at night."
"Oh. Sorry about that," I said, and half turned to him out of sympathy for his poor auntie, but when that made him even madder, I added by way of conversation, "Did anyone ever find her bearings?"
Then the guy at my left shoulder pulled at me by my arm so that I had to look at him. He was a little guy, even shorter than Melanie, who was about five foot zero. "Hey, hot shot," the little guy said. "My brother was a forest ranger." He glared at me, and I tried not to laugh while keeping a straight face. "He died in those woods too. He was out there looking for Jeremy's auntie here, and they found him laying next to her in the morning."
"Oh boy, sorry, man," I said, just as the waitress was coming back out again. "Sorry, both of you guys, for your losses." I glanced at the waitress with a smile as she set down my second burger platter, and I turned to the counter to eat, but then the third guy, standing behind me, clapped onto my shoulder and started talking about his Uncle Nelson, who had gone out with his girlfriend looking for the forest ranger, but he broke his leg while walking in the woods, and his girlfriend just left him there and went home. My heart was beating hard then, because I was familiar with their tactics, which were used a lot in my neighborhood before beating a guy's head in. Still, heartbeats and all, I gave a little laugh and half-turned. "Did they find him near this guy's auntie and --" I pointed to the little guy, "the forest ranger?"
"Yeah. He was laying dead, right on top of them." I tried to frown with mustered-up grief, but he got a wild look in his eyes. "You think that's funny?"
"Not at all." Then I busted out with a laugh to the waitress, like these guys had to be kidding me, right? But she wouldn't look at me, and then the big guy with the dead auntie yanked me up from my clammy underarm, trying to make me stand. It took all three of them to get me off my stool because I wanted to finish my second burger and because of the injustice of it all. At one point, while they were dragging me past the cashier, I elbowed the little guy in the face accidentally, and his hands went to his bleeding nose and he bent over. I said sorry while the other two still pushed and pulled at me until we were outside, and then the guy who'd lost his Uncle Nelson fell completely off the platform of the diner's outside stairs because he ran out of room when they tried to force me down to the parking lot. That left only Jeremy against me, but despite our almost equal heights, he handled me -- in my weakened state -- all by himself. I couldn't do anything except let my tired carcass get tossed onto the grass. "Next time, keep your eyes to yourself," he said.
It took me almost the whole trip to the bus station to figure out that the big guy had been talking about the waitress, and that the whole story about their relatives was just some red-faced lie. I had to take the fifty cent town bus to the bus station to get the forty dollar bus to the city, and it was lucky I had fifty bucks left in my pocket and that I didn't have to pay for the burgers, because maybe when they threw me out they forgot all about the bill. Or maybe they knew they were in the wrong and felt bad about the whole affair.
I tried to stare out the window at the dark highway and think up how to propose to Melanie, because when I really thought of it at that point, she was the only one for me. The waitress hadn't been any great shakes anyway. All she had was a beautiful face and a fantastic figure and a positive attitude about life. In fact, both Cheryl and that waitress may have had the greatest features and figures, and the perkiest personalities I'd seen in days, but no one got under my skin more than Melanie. Only Melanie could reach me and understand me and put up with me. She meant home to me, and I was loyal to her through thick and thick. And so, after the bus driver pulled out of the station and hollered at everyone to put away their fancy gadgets and enjoy the beauty of the dark highway, I began to run through my mind how to propose to her. I almost had it perfectly the way I wanted to ask her, but some guy moved up from a seat behind me and sat right beside me.
"Hey, you -- you got a leaf in your head," he said, and I reached to the back of my head for it. "And -- and some grass in your back collar there." I reached for that too. He had a Mets hat on, and so I pegged him for a loser right away.
"I notice things like that," he went on, so my proposal speech to Melanie vanished and I kind of groaned inside. "I notice things."
"Are you a Mets fan?" I asked him.
"Well, do you notice that they stink?"
"I wouldn't say that, no. We have some good pitchers coming up -- "
I laughed out loud, freely, and he just looked at me. He wasn't going to try anything with me for laughing, or I would have pulled his Mets hat down over his ears. He was a little pimply guy -- or he probably once had little pimples, but he definitely had that Mets fan lisp.
I couldn't get a word in, though. All I wanted to do was get home, shower, go downstairs to Melanie's and propose, and then hit the sack, but the Mets fan wouldn't leave me to my thoughts. Everything was about the stupid Mets, until he finally changed his own subject to ask me what I did for a living. I had to think for a second.
"Well, I work for a copy service, but I think I'm done there."
"What for?" he said, but I wouldn't answer him. I knew I wouldn't show up again; otherwise, I'd beat all their heads in for taking a horse fly's side over mine, and for not coming to look for me in the woods or the diner, and for going out anyway in their stupid canoes, all cozy with their pal God and having some kind of "in" with Him, and leaving me meanwhile to rot like a corpse in His presence, with my soul maybe going nowhere after death -- going, going gone goodbye, as Ralph Kiner used to say during my beloved Mets games.
"What for?" the Mets fan kept asking me while I fumed.
"Never mind," I told him. "But you know something, buddy. The good news is that I'm going to get married soon."
"Oh yeah? Very nice. You know, Matt Harvey is some pitcher. I saw him pitch the other night."
"And I'm going to be a father someday too, you know," I went on.
"That's great," he said. "My father had kids. Hey, did you ever see Harvey's curve? I mean, in person. You ever see it?"
"And when I have a son…" I said, a little too loud because a couple of women looked back and laughed to each other (I immediately blew a raspberry in their direction, even though they were kind of pretty). "When I have a son, buddy," I repeated to the Mets fan more quietly, shushing him with my index finger held up so he wouldn't interrupt. "He will know how to deal with life a lot easier than me."
The guy nodded. "Harvey's pitching tomorrow night. That's where I'm going -- "
"And he won't be scared of horse flies either," I broke in. "And he'll know how to find his bearings in the woods. And he'll be even taller than me…but even if he's not (I thought of how short Melanie was) he'd know how to handle himself in a diner."
"How do you like the Mets' new catcher -- "
"My wife and my son," I went on louder, elbowing him to pay attention. "I can't wait to see them."
The Mets fan thought for a minute as I smiled out the window at the road ahead.
"But -- wha -- wh -- what if your son's a daughter?" he asked.
"What? Well…I'd have to buy different clothes for him then," I answered without hardly missing a beat.
I was so sure of things at that moment that I nodded ahead into the darkness, and I wondered if maybe I should practice being more of a fatherly type right away, so that in the future if I was ever stupid enough to leave Brooklyn again and die in the woods, God might not be so hard on me for being such a sorehead.
That's when I finally relaxed, for the first time since the horse fly came after me. I settled into my headrest, and had a long talk with the poor guy about our pathetic Mets.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Lou Gaglia. All rights reserved.