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Behind me is the graceful, catenary swoop of the Verrazano Bridge, which I have just crossed on my way toward Long Island for a visit urged by persistent memory. I exit the Belt at Ocean Parkway and head south onto Surf Avenue. I park my car not far from the vertical assertion of the old parachute ride in Coney Island and the curved outline of the new baseball stadium, a jarring juxtaposition of old and new. Walking under the boardwalk, I step onto the beach.
It is deserted except for an elderly couple so bundled against the January cold they are waddling, uncertain of their balance, across the sand at water’s edge. They pause where the shore line bends in a sharp angle and the sand yields to the ocean ahead. An ancient jetty protects the flank of sand from the water.
I have come here to remember a half century old incident that started on the very spot where the couple now stands. Perplexed by the interruption to their walk posed by the jetty, they gaze at the white caps atop the black waves. They huddle close together into an embrace punctuated by a kiss that is possibly a memory of when they, too, were young. They look at me as though aware they are sharing a secret reminiscence and then with a nod they retrace their steps, away from the jetty and the ocean. After walking a few feet, the man leans down to pick up a shell and hands it to the woman.
I take their place on the jetty. And I remember how it was.
I was half way out on the jetty with Carmine standing next to me waiting his turn. Lying on a blanket on the sand twenty feet away from the breakers were the girls, my Brenda and Carmine’s Maria, wearing looks of studied indifference as though nothing of any importance was about to happen. Jimmy came hurrying past Carmine.
“Let me go first,” he said. A stiff breeze beneath lowering black clouds ruffled his thin blond hair.
“Go put a shirt on. What’ll Mom say if I let you go home looking like a lobster? You can still get a burn on a day like this,” I said. His pale skin, stretched over his frail skeleton, was already reddening. “Maybe next time. When your girl is on the blanket watching you like Brenda is now.”
“She ain’t lookin’.” he said.
“Sure she is. She don’t look like she is, but she is. You’ll know that some day.”
“Yeah when I have a girl.”
A drop of drool gathered in the corner of his mouth. His tongue reached for it a second too late and it left its track down his jaw line. He sat on the jetty and dangled his feet above the water. A wave rolled in and he flinched as it splashed against the wooden pilings.
“You see, you ain’t ready,” I said.
He shrugged and lowered his eyes. I looked past him to the girls. Brenda was staring up at the sky.
“Damn it, Jimmy,” I said.
“What’d I do?”
“Nothin, you didn’t do nothin’.”
I stood with sand at my back and the waves in front of me. Swollen and angry, driven by the wind blowing right into my face, the waters crashed against the wooden posts of the jetty. I curled my toes over the edge and leaned forward, knowing I had to launch myself far enough out so that I would not be thrown back against the pilings. I measured the rhythm of the waves, my leg muscles tensed and cramped from holding myself suspended over the edge of the jetty. I gauged the interval between the rolling waves, crouched even lower and then hurled myself. I felt the wind slow my progress, and before I hit the water, I knew I was in trouble. Instead of landing in the spent energy behind the wave I had targeted, I was going to hit its crest. I closed my eyes, and knifed into the water. I kicked and pulled with my arms, but still I felt myself being forced back. I was spun and driven face first into a post. It felt like cold mud, and when my head broke the surface, I saw that it was covered in green slime. I remained in the water, one hand on the top of the piling next to Jimmy’s leg, and stole a glance at Brenda. She was sitting up, sunglasses in her hand, smiling at me.
“Nice dive,” Jimmy said. “Now, it’s my turn...”
“What?” I said.
“My turn,” he repeated. “I can do it.”
Just then a huge wave rolled against my back, lifted me up and then flattened me against the slimy wood. Another one came right after it and broke over my head as I slipped down into the trough behind the first. I sputtered to the surface, grabbed the piling with one hand and swiped the salt water out of my eyes with the other. When my vision cleared, I saw Jimmy, his thin calves tensed, crouched over the edge, just as I had been a few minutes before.
“No,” I yelled. “It’s too rough, today. You’ll get hurt.”
His face set in determination, he shook his head.
“This IS next time. Watch me.”
With a whoop he was in the air over my head. I turned to see how he was going to hit. Much too short and too soon, he hit the crest of another giant wave. Faster than he went out, he was being hurled back. He had a silly smile on his face like he had just done something wonderful, and then his expression froze into fear as he realized he was about to be driven head first into the piling. He threw out his hands to brace himself, but I knew his arms were much too weak to afford much protection. I struggled into his path just as he arrived, and threw one arm around him. The wave pushed us with ponderous grace and strength. The palm of my free hand flattened against the piling, and Jimmy and I, in our awkward embrace, smashed against the wood.
Hands reached down for us. Carmine grabbed Jimmy’s biceps and lifted him like he was a rag doll. My neck and shoulders ached, but I was able to pull myself up.
“You OK?” Carmine asked.
“Any blood? Anywhere it ain’t supposed to be?”
“Then, I guess I’m good.” I looked at Jimmy.
“I”m good,” he said. “Thanks...I’m sorry...I thought...”
I felt a sudden, overwhelming urge to make him feel better. I clasped him to me.
“It’s OK. You made a hell of a first dive.”
“Yeah, like nobody else.”
His face opened into a huge smile. He swiped at a little drool in the corner of his mouth.
“But you were there for me, like always, right?”
“Like always,” I said, and I believed I meant it.
He sat down on the jetty.
“You’re not goin’ again, are you?”
He shook his head.
“I just want to look at the waves a little. I’ll be comin’ out in a second.”
Brenda was lying on her stomach staring back at the boardwalk. I shook my wet hands over her and she started up.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” I asked.
“I’m gettin’ hungry,” she replied. “I was thinkin’ about some ices. Or a slice.”
I knelt next to her and ran my wet hands over her bare shoulders.
“Oh yeah? I thought maybe you was thinkin’ about tonight under the boardwalk.”
“You think I was watchin’ you?”
“Tonight, you’ll know tonight. When your creepy brother ain’t around.”
I saw Jimmy’s shadow reach the edge of the blanket. I didn’t know if he had heard.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said.
“You had too much sun today. And too much water,” I said. “You gotta get home.”
“I’ll drive him,” Carmine said. “I gotta go to work anyway.”
“You guys got to take the bus.”
“Sure,” I replied. “But we ain’t sick. I’ll walk you to the car.”
Carmine’s Bel Air glistened in the sunlight on Surf Avenue, fire engine red from hood to the doors, with the quarter panel divided between white and a slash of red running to the rear bumper, white on the roof and trunk lid. It had plush red seats, and for a moment I thought the hell with the beach tonight, me and Brenda would just find the quiet spot next to the cemetery on Twentieth Avenue, but I couldn’t chance messing up those seats. Carmine was the best friend you could have, forgive you anything, except something to do with that car. He flipped pizzas in his father’s place downtown on Atlantic Avenue, and he once explained how his father didn’t feel he had to pay him because it was a family business, wasn’t the roof over his head enough, so nobody knew where he got the money for his car, and nobody asked.
Just as we reached the car, a couple of guys got out of a battered ‘48 green Plymouth coupe parked in front of it. One of them was about my height, just under six feet, and powerfully built, the other shorter and younger.
The bigger one looked at the bumper of the Plymouth, then walked toward us. He stared at Carmine, then the Bel Air.
“You drive that piece of shit?” he asked.
“What’s it to you?” Carmine said.
“Nothin’ except I think it scratched my bumper.”
“Your car looks like it fell off a cliff,” Carmine said. “Now, just piss off.”
“That ain’t nice,” he said. He shifted his glance to Jimmy, and I took a step toward him. He broke into a grin that stretched the white scar on his cheek, left there by somebody’s knife.
“Hey, Tommy, we got us a hero,” he said.
There was a clatter of hoofs, louder and louder until they stopped abreast of us.
“Any trouble here?” the cop, beefy and red faced, with a beer belly that pushed against his uniform jacket, asked from his saddle on the police horse.
“Nothin’ at all,” Carmine said, and we all smiled.
He nodded and looked us over. “Let’s keep it that way.” Leaning over the horse’s neck, he stroked its nose.
“Now ain’t the time,” the bigger one said in a low voice as they walked toward the beach . “I know him,” Jimmy said.
“Tommy, the short one. He used to have my route. He’s always rankin’ me, calling me names, like retard.”
“And the other?”
“Sometimes I see them together. I hear Tommy call him Ching, because he says he fights like the whole Chinese army.”
“Ain’t we whoppin’ that army over in Korea?” Carmine asked.
“Yeah,” I smiled.
That night, me and Brenda sat on the stoop in front of Carmine’s house. He would be home about eleven, having stopped for Maria on the way. With music playing on the portable radio, we moved our heads to the beat, smoked cigarettes, and waited for Mrs. Klaus’s window across the street to go black. Sometimes Brenda stole a peek to see if Mrs. Klaus’s light was out. Carmine liked to say the old witch sat there in the dark with binoculars in one hand and the phone to call the cops in the other.
As he usually did, Jimmy sat off by himself. Our mom and dad always had a kind of pained look on their faces when they talked about him like he was some kind of unfortunate mistake, a little bundle they found on their doorstep that they didn’t ask for but would do the best they could with because that’s what they thought they were supposed to do. But they kind of handed him off to me, and I was no happier looking after him than they were. He just got in the way. And yet there was something about him, a kind of goofy warmth that would have touched me if I had let it. But most of the time I didn’t.
His forehead sat too near to his flattened nose, like it was arguing for space with his close set blue eyes. He coughed his head off every time he lit one of the Luckies from the pack tucked under his T-shirt sleeve, but he would smoke it anyway.
“Remember what we talked about,” I said to him.
“Sure, sure, about Ching and Tommy.”
“That’s right, you’re our lookout.”
I pointed down the street, and he turned his back to us.
“Keep looking that way. There’s where they might come from.”
He nodded, and shook a cigarette out of his pack. He lit it, inhaled, and covered his mouth against the cough.
It was almost midnight and Carmine was late. If he didn’t come home soon we’d have to take the bus or the subway to the beach. At this time of night we would be waiting a long time, and it was too damned far to walk. Then I heard the doowop backup rhythms of the Five Satins on the humid air as Carmine’s car slid under the lamp post two houses down from where we were sitting. It was a spot that somehow was always available when he needed it. He turned off the lights but let the radio work its way through the last chorus of “In the Still of the Night,” and I could imagine his shit eating grin as though he had planned this entrance.
“Our chariot,” I said.
“Carmine,” Jimmy called out.
“Good job of watching,” I said.
Carmine swung his long legs out of the Bel Air. Her lipstick smeared, Maria got out of her side of the car, her hands fussing with her hair. Carmine winked at me as he passed, and then he tossed me the keys.
“Be careful, man,” he said.
Maria’s mouth was working her gum. She had pulled a red kerchief over her black hair, but it would not be contained. She looked at Jimmy like he was some kind of insect under glass. and shivered like she was cold. Carmine motioned her into his house. A light went on and then off in the front room. I closed my fist around the keys until they felt like they were going to slice my skin.
I felt Brenda’s fingers land on my knee and move up my thigh. She stopped too soon. I shoved the keys into my pocket and then I placed her hand where I wanted it. She resisted for a moment, with her eyes on Jimmy and then across the street at Mrs. Klaus’s window. But only for a second, and then her fingers closed. I shut my eyes, and emptied my mind of everything but her touch. I heard a car engine and after a few moment I sensed something, maybe a shadow, cross my face, and then she started to move her hand away. I grabbed her wrist and held it.
“No,” she said.
I heard the fear in her voice. I opened my eyes to the beam of a flashlight. It lingered on my face, and then moved down to where I held Brenda’s hand. I released it. The green Plymouth was double parked next to the Bel Air.
“Party’s over for you,” said a voice from behind the light. “But maybe later....” He did not complete the sentence. He didn’t have to. Brenda moved against my side as though she would hide behind my back if the step were not in the way. I shielded my eyes against the light until I could see. Ching, backed by four or five smaller guys, was holding the flashlight. He had one thick arm around Jimmy, and a hand over his mouth. Jimmy was struggling, and broke free when Ching relaxed his grip. His face was blood red, and tears filled his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t see them coming and then he grabbed me.”
Carmine pushed open the front door, and walked out, his shirt half on, holding his pants up. I could see Maria still lying on the couch on the back wall of the front room, which was an enclosed porch. She blinked in the sudden light from the street. She sat up and the beam from the flashlight found her breasts. She took a deep breath, to give them a show, then mouthed a curse and raised her middle finger. She pulled her shirt over her chest just before Carmine’s large palm covered the lens of the flashlight. I could see white flour and red sauce on the back of his hand. Ching tried to pull the flashlight free, the bulge of his biceps tense while the veins on Carmine’s forearm rose against his skin. The standoff lasted until Carmine glanced back at Maria and saw that she had closed the front door. He forced the flashlight’s beam to the ground and let it go.
“What the hell ” he demanded.
Brenda stood on the step above me, a newly lit cigarette in her hand, staring Ching down. That’s my girl, I thought. Ching moved back a pace or two and handed the flashlight to a kid I recognized as Tommy. Over Ching’s head, I could see Mrs. Klaus’s dark window, and I wondered where the hell she was when she could do some good. Then, as if in answer, the light flicked on and the window was yellow, but there was no sign of Mrs. Klaus. Tommy played the flashlight over each of us in turn. He let it linger on Brenda. She blew smoke and the light moved on.
“Hey, Tommy,” Ching said, “which one is it? Which one took your money?”
Tommy ran the light over Carmine, me and then stopped on Jimmy’s pale face. I felt my blood rise. Jimmy’s eyes rolled back, and drool dripped down his chin. He reached for his cigarettes, but dropped the pack when he tried to fumble out a butt.
“He the one?” Ching asked
Tommy didn’t answer. He looked like an actor who had missed his cue, and was hoping somebody would bail him out. He was a scrawny kid, and his face was mottled with blotches of acne.
“Take your time, little man,” Ching said. “We got to get this right.”
Carmine stepped forward. He was taller than Ching, but not as broad.
“You guys through with your game?” he asked.
“Patience,” Ching said.
They stood chest to chest. Ching’s face exploded into a bright smile, his teeth white in the darkness. He turned to Tommy and crooked a finger at Carmine.
This time Tommy seemed to remember his lines.
“Nah, he’s way too tall. And too ugly. And stupid.”
Carmine crossed his arms in front of his chest. He looked over Tommy at Ching. They were like two rams about to butt heads, but the moment passed. Tommy turned his light on Jimmy again, but my brother was sitting with his head between his knees, shaking.
“Him?” Ching asked. “The one that looks like he’s going to piss himself, if he ain’t already done it?”
I saw the game, and I knew the rules. I stepped in front of Jimmy and ducked my head so the light fell full on my face.
“I think he must be pointing at me,” I said.
“Is that right? Oh, yeah, the hero from this afternoon,” Ching said, and his tone dictated the answer.
“Sure,” Tommy said. “He’s the one.”
Carmine shook his head.
“I can take care of this,” he said.
“Yeah, but he was going after Jimmy.”
“Are you sure?”
“He’s my brother.” I looked at Jimmy and then back to Brenda, who had her hand to her mouth. She removed her hand, and I could see her lips moving, over and over, saying a silent no, and I, too, wanted to shout No, damnit, no, not tonight. Carmine squeezed my shoulder. But I couldn’t let Carmine play my hand. That would be like doing the dive on a day when the roiling waves magically transformed into the placid surface of a lake. What would be the point in that? Ching’s voice, rich in contempt, intruded.
“Are you gonna let your boyfriend stand up for you?”
I felt Carmine bristle, and I knew he wanted Ching as much as I didn’t. Still, there was no choice, and so I shook Carmine’s hand from my shoulder. He sat down next to Jimmy and put his arm around him.
“Bye, bye lover boy,” Ching said. He turned to me, “Look, man, you don’t have to get hurt. Just give me the money your pal took from Tommy.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
Ching shook his head as though talking to a recalcitrant child.
“Now, as I was sayin’ Tommy went to collect from some people on his route and they said they already paid. Now, that ain’t right, is it? All them nickels and dimes, we figure adds up to, let’s say ten bucks, and we’re even.”
“I’m glad you told me what’s been happenin’,” I said, “‘cause I don’t know what the hell you been talkin’ about.” I was on a different jetty now, and Ching was the wave.
“You callin’ me a liar in front of all my friends, and your bitch sittin’ there?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was time to jump and not worry about getting splattered.
“Well, after I’m done with you, she won’t want you no more.”
“Come on,” I said. “Or are you all hot air?”
For answer, the smile still frozen on his face, he unbuckled his thick belt, tore it off and wrapped one end of the heavy leather around his right hand. He twirled the buckle in small circles in the air between us, a taunting, teasing gesture. He continued while I pulled off my belt. I studied his buckle. It had been filed down. Mine was as it came from the factory. The realization hit me that what was a fashion statement for me was a weapon for him. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Carmine. He was standing with his arms across his chest, his face like stone.
Jimmy still sat with his face pressed against his knees, sheltered behind his thin arms.
We circled each other. Ching took a step to the left. His right leg was crossed in front of his left. Seeing he was off balance, I swung my belt at his face as hard as I could. He ducked and raised his left arm just in time to deflect the buckle and it glanced off his forearm and over his head. He snatched at my belt, but I pulled it back.
We kept our knees bent and our legs spaced. We flicked our belts in feints. I knew I could not let him get too close. He would be too strong for me. But I thought I might just be a little quicker. He lowered his shoulder and came at me. I jumped aside and threw up my hands, but his shoulder pushed past my hands and caught me on the side of my rib cage. He had been aiming for my sternum, and if he had hit it, I would have been at his mercy, bent over, unable to breathe, nausea rising up from my belly. I had been hit that way once in a game of touch football, and I had just knelt in the street until the world stopped spinning and I knew I wasn’t going to puke.
He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed. I felt the air leaving my lungs. I brought my hand up under his nose and pushed as hard as I could. He was able to hold his grip for a little while, but then he had to swipe at my hand. As soon as I was free, I stepped back and leaned over to catch my breath. He came at me again, this time with his foot. I crossed my arms in front of me and caught it. I had his leg up in the air and aimed my own kick where it would do the most good. He tried to block it with his hand, but he was too slow. I caught him flush, and he went down. I swung my belt and crashed it against his cheek. Blood oozed. Up to that moment, the smile had never left his face, but now something like rage, or fear, formed his features, and his lips drew back in a sneer. His right hand reached for his motorcycle boot, and when it emerged I knew before I heard the click what he had in his hand. The blade caught the light of the street lamp.
He was in a crouch. Sweat beaded his forehead. His eyes narrowed to slits, and his wide nostrils flared with each breath. I heard a scuffle behind me, but I dared not turn around. My eyes remained on the blade. He sprang toward me. “No,” Brenda screamed. Somebody was coming at us from the side. The knife began its arc toward me. I tried to jump back, but somebody else was pressing against me. I turned as best I could and lifted my arm as a shield. Closing my eyes, holding my breath, I waited to feel the thrust of the blade into my flesh.
Instead I sensed a body between us. I opened my eyes just as the knife found Jimmy’s chest. Ching’s arm muscle strained against the weight and then he let go of the knife. Jimmy remained standing for a moment before he started to fall. I reached my arms around him and knelt so that he collapsed against me.
“Damned fool.” he said. He ran his finger over the scar on his cheek. “I was only gonna cut you a little.”
Nobody else said anything. I looked behind me. Carmine was still pushing toward us. He had been held back by two of Ching’s gang. They were just big enough to provide a drag he could not overcome in time. He looked from one to the other, and they let him go. He started to say something, but then just shook his head. The door to his house opened, and Maria stepped out onto the stoop. She motioned to Carmine, and he walked towards her. They glanced across the street at Mrs. Klaus’s window. She was clearly visible now, a silhouette in black, as though the window were a screen and the light in her room a projector. She had her phone to her ear, and she was talking. The door shut behind Carmine and Maria.
Brenda came over to me and looked down at Jimmy. The knife was still in his chest, and his blood pooled around the blade, leaving a red blotch on his white T-shirt.
“Is he?” she asked.
I stared at the still chest, but did not answer.
“That stupid dive,” she said. “Whatja think? You was Superman?” She stood up. “I don’t think I wanna see you for a while.”
And then she was gone. I didn’t know whether I should pull the knife out. I was afraid all of his blood would spurt out like an uncapped volcano. I tried to squeeze the torn flesh together around the blade. I felt his blood warm on my fingers.
The Plymouth’s engine sputtered to life. Mrs. Klaus’s light went out, and I waited with Jimmy for the cops. They would want to know who, and what, and I would have to think of some kind of answer. My parents would grieve, but in secret they would be relieved that it was Jimmy and not me. I would tell them the same story I would make up for the cops, and none of them, my parents, the cops, Mrs. Klaus, could understand how the rush of the dive, the slicing through the water led to the blade finding Jimmy’s chest, how it had all been done somehow for a girl who did not want to see me anymore, and whose loss I did not regret.
I lifted one hand slowly from the wound. The bleeding had stopped. I reached into my pocket and dug out the keys to Carmine’s car. I tossed them toward the step, but aimed too high. They rattled against the door. It opened and a hand, flecked with flour, reached out and gathered them up. A moment later, the door opened again and Carmine and Maria hurried out. He squeezed my shoulder as he went by, but she would not look at me with Jimmy’s head in my lap.
“I’ve got to stay,” I said.
He nodded and then they trotted to his car. He gunned the engine, and was down the street before the cop car screeched to halt behind its siren. I told my story of how these guys we had never seen before from some other neighborhood we had never heard of had come looking for trouble, and how Jimmy had stood up to them, how he alone held them off while we started to run, and how I had come back to get him too late. I finished and looked at the cop’s weary face, his eyes filled with disbelief as his stub of a pencil raced over his little pad.
The newspaper reporter spoke to the cop with the pencil, and wrote the story. My parents looked from me to the newspaper not recognizing either son, the one in front of them or the one in the ground.
Now, again on the jetty in Brighton Beach, the cold wind off the black waters buffeting my face, I see Jimmy as he was that day, determination in his eyes as he said, “It is my turn,” and I wonder if things might have turned out differently if I had been able to stop him.
I walk in the footsteps of the old couple along the water’s edge and watch the breakers roil almost to my feet. I can see their footprints, and I pick up a whelk shell, the kind whose empty chamber holds the echo of the ocean.
Before I get back in my car on Surf Avenue I gaze up at the skeletal structure of the parachute ride, like a giant’s erector set toy, all steel framework topped by a flying saucer from a grade B attack of the aliens film, where once Brenda and I sat two hundred feet above the ground looking out over the ocean, holding hands as though we would always be together and as happy with each other as we were at that moment while down below Jimmy waited with that expectant, confused look on his face, waiting to say that maybe next time he would ride to the top sitting next to his girl.
The cemetery out on Long Island is as deserted as the beach. I make my way to the family plot, the three headstones, bold and imposing for my mother and father as if to declare that they were people, after all, of some substance, and off to the side the much smaller one for Jimmy. There is a space between them that perhaps I will occupy before too much longer. I note that the stones I have been placing on his grave seem still to be there.
I place the shell atop the stones. I think, even now, he would like to hear the waves.