My second published short story. Coney Island
His mother wakes him with the sound of his name. He hears "James" at these times, the tone of a question, like asking if it's really him under his rainbow blanket. He fake sleeps a little and watches her fold his green hooded sweatshirt and a pair of tan corduroys she never remembers he hates. She lays them neatly in an open brown suitcase that smells like the basement, tosses a pair of socks in there too which he'll bring home still folded in a ball. He turns his face away from her on his pillow and picks at the peeling seam of the wall paper; toy soldiers, light blue cannons. Someone else's choice.
"Come on, now. You know he's waitin'."
He thinks of the drive they'll take, the one she wakes him for every other Saturday: the Route 9 to Howard Johnson's. Jim can see the blue and orange sign from five minutes away on the New Jersey Turnpike. If he squints one eye, he can squash the sign with his pointer and thumb, mash it to nothing. He's done this all four times.
"I think I'm sick," he says, his head still turned.
"You bringin' your hat?"
"You don't believe me?"
"I believe you. Which hat you wearing today?"
"I threw up last night," he says.
"It was grilled cheese."
"Yankees or…what team is this?" she says flipping over the hat and squinting inside.
"And milk," he says.
"You didn't have milk, Jim. Is this a Dodger hat or what?"
"I mean juice…apple-"
"Is this a Brooklyn Dodger hat?"
"Oh, this is from Little League."
He throws off the blanket and sits up in bed. He slides both thumbs inside a tiny hole in the knee of his olive pajama bottoms. He rips them slowly, no sound. His mother claps, "Come on, chop, chop, in the bathroom." He pulls his thumbs out.
"You can see I'm not lying if you look at the toilet," he says.
She turns to him with her hands on her hips, takes a breath and blows it out.
His mom dresses in tight, bright clothes whenever she drives him to the Howard Johnson's. She wears wet lipstick and has round long curls that bounce when the car does. It's where she goes after she drops him off that makes her spray perfume behind her ears. Jim knows she won't be alone in the apartment when he's gone, but not because she told him. Her boyfriend's name is Kyle. Jim hears him piss in the toilet when he stays the night, even with his fingers in his ears. Sounds like someone's pouring out a pail of water. Kyle bought Jim's mom a little-girl T-shirt with Minnie Mouse on it, got himself one too with Mickey, but his covers his belly button. Kyle has a pointed Adam's apple, cigarette teeth and tight dark jeans. He holds food in his cheeks between bites to stare at Jim's mom, says she's hotter than a tin roof in Tucson
"You go call your daddy and tell him you're too sick to see him, Jimmy. I'm too tired to play this game today," she says, a tilted chin. She kneels on the navy throw rug and opens the bottom drawer of his dresser with her back to him. She holds his bathing suit over her head and waves it like a flag.
"Is he takin' you swimming?" she asks and reaches to scratch something on her back that she can't get close to. She looks over her shoulder at him. "Jim?"
"I don't know," he says, softly.
"You don't know what?"
"If we're swimming at the Howard Johnson's."
She turns around, leans sitting against the dresser and motions with her finger for him to come toward her. He stands and walks over. She runs her fingers into his dark curled hair and lifts the thickness as high as it will go. Her eyes follow it to its peak and then drop to her son's eyes.
"You need a haircut, tough guy."
He shakes his head.
"How many candles are goin' on that cake in two weeks?"
"You sure it's not less than that?"
"Yeah, I'm sure."
"Your daddy's going to take you swimmin', buy you a
He shakes his head slower.
"Now, which one of those things makes you want to stay in this tiny apartment with me?"
He turns his head to the suitcase and back at me. He swallows. The tip of his tongue touches his top lip.
"What time tomorrow are…?"
"Same as the last four times, Jim. You tell me what time?"
"Is Kyle gonna come when you pick me up?"
"What time do I pick you up on Sunday, Jim?"
He lifts the black digital watch on is wrist nearly to his chin and squeezes two buttons with his right hand. It beeps.
"Okay, then. Which hat are you bringin'?" she says, lifting them in each hand.
"Is Kyle gonna come with you when you…"
"I'm not sure, Jim, do you have to know right now?"
"Is he gonna be here tonight?"
"I don't know that either, Sherlock Holmes. Would you like me to call the motel when I know?"
"Do you know the number?"
"I want you to get in the bathroom. I want you to brush your teeth and then throw your toothbrush in the suitcase. After that I want you in the car, got it?" She lifts the Yankees hat from the floor. "You wearin' this one?"
He nods and she puts it on his head, pulling the brim over his eyes with a jerk. He lifts the hat, turns the suitcase and pulls out the tan corduroys.
"I hate these," he says, holding them up.
She nods, looking at the pants. "Oh, right."
Jim walks in the bathroom, turns the cold water on high, and grabs his toothbrush. The room smells like perfume, reminds him of Saturdays and packing and picking which hat. She only wears perfume on these days, he thinks, just like last time. It's always the same. His Mom will honk the horn once to scatter sleeping cats. He'll smile but he won't let her see. She'll start the old car, a beige station wagon that smells of damp rug and a stinky sweetness like forgotten chocolate and has a drooping glove box door tied half-shut with the tassel from his mom's high school cap and gown. She'll turn on country, "anything that twangs" and strum her fingers on the dash to her 8-tracks while singing the crying words in something like a whisper. They'll get held up by the same traffic light just off the exit, just under the overpass from the Howard Johnson's. Jim will time the light by holding his breath, head leaning on the passenger window, eyes pinned on the red. The car's turn signal will click while his face puffs with blood; a dull, simple, right-turn click, but a sound he'll forever place with his father. Twenty seconds is all his lungs will hold, the traffic light always wins.
Jim leans the heel of his palm on the empty tube of Crest. He gets nothing but runs the bristles of his brush over the spout anyway. Most of what he sees in the mirror is his forehead and hair. On his tip-toes he can see his eyes and nose. He lifts his yellow toothbrush over his head to see the reflection.
"How's it comin' in there?" his mom says through the door.
She'll pull away from the Howard Johnson's after she kisses his head. She'll say, "Love you, see you tomorrow," and she'll spin the tires on the black pavement of that lot. He'll watch his Mom pull back on the turnpike and then check the time on his digital watch. It will get dark and then light again before he sees her.
"I'm starting the car, Jim. Don't forget that toothbrush."
Roddy Mills will be puffing away in a booth towards the back. He'll mash his cigarette out when he sees Jim and blow out his nostrils while sliding out on the orange vinyl. It'll be cold in there, maybe from those bright-lit carousel fridges with coconut cake and pressed down pie. "Jimminy Cricket," Roddy will say, like seeing an old pal, and then he'll squint for Jim's mom before talking ice cream and messin' his hair.
Jim shuts the car door, and his mom snaps his seatbelt. "Got everything?" she says.
He says nothing, and she puts the car in drive.
Roddy is in the Hojo parking lot this time, standing over the open trunk of the Dodge he calls Nellie. He sees the station wagon pull up so he snaps on the Styrofoam lid of his cooler, shuts the trunk and approaches with a wrinkled smile and a can of Milwaukee
Jim watches his dad walk towards them while he bumps his thumb blindly against his seat belt latch. Roddy kneels on the pavement at the driver's window and grips something on the top of the car with both hands. His face shows panic like he's really hanging off a moving car. Then he smiles.
"Good morning, family," he says, and pecks his wife on her turned cheek.
"Hello, Roddy," she says and clicks open Jim's seat belt.
"How's my boy this morning, Jim?"
"Good," he says, pulling the door lock up with both hands.
"You're lookin' beautiful as ever there, Mom. I don't suppose you smell like a rose petal for the father of your child, now, am I wrong?" he says grinning.
"You gonna be here at the motel the whole time, Roddy?"
"Now, that's what I wanted to talk to you about, Sweetheart."
Jim walks slowly around the front of the car with his suitcase towards his dad. Roddy stands from his crouch and lifts his son into the air with a spin. When Jim's feet touch the ground, he steps to get balance and smiles through the pinch he feels in each armpit. He looks at his mom. She's touching the car lighter to the tip of a Marlboro.
"What'd you want to talk to me about?" she says, blowing out the first toke.
"Now I got a little surprise for the boy," he says, smiling out of the corner of his eye at Jim. "But I'm gonna need just one more day."
"What kind of surprise?" she says.
"If I tell you that, it ain't a surprise no more, Angel."
"Your daddy's got something planned for you, Jim. How do you feel about stayin' an extra day?"
Jim's eyes drop to the pavement, puts the toe of his sneaker on a penny stuck in the parking lot tar.
"Got school on Monday."
"Well, you'll just have to miss school this time," his dad says, patting his palm against Jim's belly.
"I don't know, Roddy," she says. "One night's the deal and I think we ought to stick…"
"Now, I don't want to get in a huff here, Sweetheart, but I been…real good about this arrangement and…"
"One night is what we agreed."
"Agree? Agree nothin'. I had no choice but to sign that piece of paper that…"
"Why, Roddy?! Why'd you have no choice?" she snaps.
"Well, I think I've proven myself over the past few months, Sweetheart, and this here kid is just as much mine as…"
"Please don't. Don't start with me. You want to have him until tomorrow night, we can talk about that."
"Now I told you I need more time than that."
Her eyes go to the can of beer he holds in his hand and then back to him. "How's that breakfast sittin', Roddy?" she says, almost whispering.
He stares at her for a second then looks at the can himself. Jim is slowly kicking the front left tire of the car.
"This here's tap water, Sweetheart," he says in a softer tone. "A light beer on the weekend."
She puts the car in drive.
"Come give your mom a kiss, Jimmy."
He walks to the window. She grips his face, presses her lips against his eye, leaves some of the wet redness with him.
"What time tomorrow night, Roddy?" she says, Jim's face still in her hands.
"Jimminy Cricket? Can't you miss one day of school for your old man?"
"He likes school, don't you, Jim?" she says.
He nods in her grip.
"Okay, great, he loves school. So, I need till nine or ten. Is that all right with you?" he says, flopping his forearm on the roof of the car.
"That sound okay with you, Jim?" she says.
He looks at his watch. "What time?"
". I'll see you then, okay?" she says in his ear.
He nods and steps away from the car. She pulls out of the lot. They both watch the station wagon disappear. Roddy lifts the suitcase. There's a silence in the air that's strange, such a busy highway stop. Roddy turns to Jim, licks the fat of his thumb and wipes the lipstick from his eye, knocking him back a step. Roddy starts walking toward the Howard Johnson's. He sips his beer and tosses it in the trash. Jim looks up at the highway, listens to the hum.
"You coming?" Roddy says.
He follows his dad.
Roddy pulls a box of cigarettes from inside his jacket, jerks the pack and pulls one out with his teeth. He lights it with a dip of his head, flicks the matches on the table. He looks at Jim sitting across from him in the booth then turns to a passing waitress and snaps his fingers twice.
"Be there in a second," she says.
Roddy rests the cigarettes in the ashtray and slides lower in his seat, resting his head against the back of the booth. Jim feels his dad's work boots under his feet.
Jim tries to sit up but the edge of the table stays even with his neck. He puts his finger on his paper placemat and moves it closer.
"Aren't you glad to see your old man?" Roddy says.
"It's been two weeks now, Jimmy. I have to wait two weeks after I see you, and I think about you…you know? You're my son, and I think about you a lot."
Jim puts his finger on a drop of spilled water on his placemat. He spreads it into a line and then scratches it. It makes a hole.
"I got a picture of you, Jim. It's a picture of you with your mom on the day you were born. I bet you don't remember gettin' that picture took, am I right?"
"No, I don't remember."
"They got you in this little hat, a little yellow hat, and you're wrapped up and lying in your mom's arms."
"Did you take the picture?"</SPAN>
"No, I'm in there, I'm leaning on the bed, got my arm around your mom."
"Who took it?"
"A nurse, I guess, I don't really remember, but try and guess who's squeezing my finger in the photo. Take a guess."
That's right. Jimminy Cricket squeezin' his dad's finger, showin' some muscle on his first day out in the big show."
"Okay, boys, sorry about the wait. What are you havin'?" asks the waitress.
Roddy sits straight and mashes his cigarette out, still looking at Jim.
The waitress pulls a pen from her apron pocket and dabs the tip to her tongue.
"How old are you little man?" she asks.
"I'm…nine," Jim says, not looking at her. He puts his elbows up on the table.
"You a Yankee fan?"
"Let me get a cheeseburger, medium rare, and a big Coke. You eat yet, Jimmy?"
"What time is it? You ready for ice cream?"
"It's ," says the waitress, like someone's mother.
"Maybe we'll wait on the ice cream. You're sure you ate enough, right?"
"Okay, that's all, Sweetheart, thanks. You guys have any beer, something light?"
"Okay," Roddy says, waving his hand. "No problem." He pulls the cigarettes out of his pocket, lights one up.
"So, what I'm telling you, Jim, is that we didn't meet for the first time in December, like you thought. We met back there on your first day of life," Roddy says, nodding.
Jim finds a smile. "But I don't remember."
"That's why I'm telling you about the picture of you squeezing my finger."
"Okay," he says.
"You got the whole thing in your tiny hand," he says, gripping Jim's left hand and wrapping it around his finger.
Roddy holds their hands together. "You ready to hear about the surprise?"
"Can you guess?"
"Is it about Doreen?" asks Jim.
"No, it's a lot better than that."
"Is she here?"
"Yeah, yeah, she's washin' her hair."
"Is our room near the pool?"
"I think so, but keep guessin' on the surprise."
"Is it a present?"
"No, no, no."
"What is it?" asks Jim, a slight smile.
"You really want to know?" Roddy says, leaning his chest over the table.
"I'll tell you," he says, and reaches out to stroke the boy's face where his cheek meets his eye.
Jim swallows, breathes out his mouth.
"But I want to hear that you love me first," Roddy says. "Since we met, I've never even heard you…call me Dad."
Jim tries to sit up, silverware falls and rattles the floor.
"It's just a little, stupid thing, I know…but I really want to hear it. Just once, Jimmy. I want to hear, 'I love you, Dad'. Just once."
"Here's the Coke," says the waitress. "It'll be a few on the burger."
Roddy leans back, straightens the Jets jacket and smiles at her. She sticks a straw to the side of the glass and leaves. Roddy stares at Jim and taps his heart. Jim slides the handle of his spoon through the hole in his placemat. It rips more.
"Love you, Dad," Jim says, his eyes on the placemat.
Roddy smiles, nodding to an unheard beat; his eyes fill and he taps the edge of the table with his ring.
"I love you too, Son. We're drivin' to Florida
It's drizzling when they walk outside. Jim looks up behind the restaurant at the blue and orange Howard Johnson's sign he can see from the turnpike. He can hear the lights in it buzzing when there's a slight break in the hum of highway cars flying through the new rain. This close he can see where some of the paint chipped away from the steel girders and turned to dark red rust. A skinny orange ladder runs up the side all the way to the top. Jim thinks the person who goes up there could see for miles or maybe even further. The bottom of the ladder is buried in strands of tangled, thorny weeds that blow sideways at the base; all of it is surrounded by a chain-link fence.
His first time at the Howard Johnson's he dreamt he climbed the ladder and saw his mom's station wagon on the Turnpike. She was eating a hamburger in the driver's seat, and Kyle was shaving, using a mirror in the sun flap, even though there isn't one there. Jim doesn't think he could see a person up there from the Turnpike, even if they were waving and saying his name. Especially on the wet highway, the way cars spray at that speed, blocking all other sounds.
"I'm gonna get some things front the trunk, Jimminy Cricket. You go on up to room 210," Roddy says, pointing to some outdoor stairs.
Jim carries his suitcase along the fence of the pool toward the concrete staircase. He walks on soggy astro-turf past an ice machine and climbs up the first step with both hands gripping the handle. He puts the suitcase down on the step and turns to see Roddy opening his trunk and checking out the changing sky.
Doreen answers the door with a Hojo towel folded on her head and one around her body. She's got an unlit cigarette hanging from her mouth that looks double the size of a normal one and the phone pinned between her shoulder and neck. She kisses his head, holds one finger up and mouths something to him with a crinkled nose.
"You got to rub his snout in it, Kath. He only did that…Kath?...he only did that cause he's angry with me…I know, I know…I understand that, but if you don't grab his fuc…his snout and cram it in there, he's gonna think he's won the battle. Now please, go do it before he forgets what the heck he's being punished for, okay? Listen, I got to go…right, nice, and hard and don't hold back but do it now so he don't forget…kay bye. Jimminy Cricket!"
She hugs and kisses with strength, smells like wet skin, talks fast and loud. Jim met her only once before, the second visit. She was in a towel then too. When she lets go he puts the suitcase next to the bed nearest the door and looks around the room.
"How are you, Jimmy?"
"Where's your daddy?"
"I'm right here," says Roddy, with his squeaky cooler in his hands.
"Did he get bigger or is it me?"
"I think he might of," Roddy says.
"You're gonna be a big one, isn't he Rod?" she says, her hands on her knees, staring.
Roddy puts the cooler on the dresser, pulls two beers and opens them. He looks in the mirror, swats the rain off the top of his hair, then takes a sip.
"You been eatin' Wheaties, Jim?" she says.
"Like his daddy," Roddy says, bouncing on the end of the bed. "I told you I played football, didn't I, Jim?"
"Well, I'm gonna get dressed," Doreen says. "Did you tell him about the surprise yet?"
Jim eyes jump to her. He slowly sits on the end of the bed, his feet on the floor.
Roddy is laying on his back with his beer resting on his chest.
"Did we get an extra day with Superman, here?"
"Been a slight change in those plans, Doreen."
Doreen slowly pulls the towel off her head and looks at Jim. She dries her hair a little as she walks over to him and lifts his chin with her finger.
"What's goin' on, Roddy?" she says.
"Plan A, Coney Island Disneyworld Disneyworld Orlando , Florida
Doreen looks at Roddy and shakes her head. She takes Jim's chin in her hand and smiles, her round face shines.
"Jimmy? Your mom say okay to Disneyworld
Jim closes his eyes, swallows.
Doreen lets go of his chin and takes a deep breath while ruffling her sandy hair with the towel. She walks over to her beer and takes a sip. "Well, I'll tell ya. Personally, plan A was gonna work out for me because I got Monday off so we could go ride the Cyclone all day tomorrow, you know, and eat some cotton candy and all, take our time getting back here tomorrow night, head home Monday."
"Plan A got shot to shit, Doreen. The boy's mother said no! Can't have Monday! She said no, no, to Monday because of the agreement! Do you remember the fuckin' agreement?"
"Who are you yelling at, you crazy…"
Roddy stands, slams his can on the top of the T.V. and beer flies to the ceiling.
"One fuckin' day I ask for and that woman says no to me."
"Roddy, you're scaring your son!" she says through clenched teeth.
"She makes me come out to this crap motel because I can't be trusted to have him in the house, thinks I'm gonna shove liquor down his fuckin' throat."
Jim looks at Doreen. She walks back to him smiling with her eyes, puts her hand on his head and leans it against the damp towel on her hip.
"Roddy? Jimmy knows you want him to come to the house, but everything's a little bit new right now, right, Jim? In a few months we'll have him at the house, and we'll all wish we had the pool back, right?" she says, shaking his shoulder.
Roddy turns his back to them. He sits hunched over on the bed, facing the wall.
"She'll never let him come to the house, Doreen."
"That's not true, Roddy."
"You didn't read the agreement."
"I think I know what it said."
"It doesn't matter any more what it said 'cause he's my son too. I'm tired of listening to her rules."
"We got a good plan for tomorrow though, Roddy."
"I got a new plan. Made it while I watched her pull out of here today, Doreen, and Disneyworld
Doreen walks over to Roddy, sits on the bed and starts rubbing the back of his neck. Jim doesn't see the telephone, it's probably on the floor. He can't hear Doreen's words, just mumbles, her mouth touching his dad's ear. A kid screams outside the window, but it's excitement, something about the pool. "Maybe later," an adult voice says, and the kid asks "Why?"
"Jim?" Roddy says, his back still facing him.
"I wonder what your mom would think if I took you down to Florida
Jim looks at the splattered beer on the mirror then stands slowly and walks toward the back of their heads. Doreen still rubs Roddy's neck but stops when she sees Jim get close. She puts an arm around his shoulder and pulls him near them. Roddy wipes his nose on his sleeve and lifts his head smiling. Doreen starts to squeeze Jim's neck at the same time as Roddy's. It hurts.
"Look at us," Roddy says. "We're a family."
"Tell Jim, Roddy. Tell him what we're gonna do tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Roddy says grinning.
"That's right, Honey."
"I'll tell Jimminy Cricket all about tomorrow, but I want you to hear what he said to me in the restaurant, Doreen. I want you to hear what my son told me."
"What'd you say?" she says shaking Jim's shoulder.
Jim spins his watch on his wrist.
"What'd you tell your daddy, Jim?"
"I said I love him."
Roddy's chin slowly drops to his chest. He reaches for his eyes with both hands, but the tears are already through his fingers. He drops off the bed to his knees and wraps both arms around Jim's body, his large hand gripping the back of his head.
"My son," he says, his eyes closed, stubble pressing against Jim's neck and face. Roddy jolts to his feet, puts his hands under Jim's armpits and lifts.
"Careful with him, Roddy," Doreen says.
He spins him once in a circle above the room, then drops on the bed like a cut down tree with Jim locked in his arms. They bounce and settle, the Yankee hat falls. Jim's right sneaker is clamped between Roddy's knees. He feels his father's tears under the neck of his t-shirt, smells the cigarettes and beer, his eyes shut tight, dark.
"A mistake!" Roddy says. "Such a big fuckin' mistake walking away from you."
Doreen kneels over them and strokes Roddy's hair. "Roddy, Honey…let him go. He's your boy and you love him, he knows that. You need to let him go."
"He loves me, Doreen," he whispers.
"You bet he does, Baby. You bet he does."
Roddy loosens his grip but still lays wrapped around his son. Doreen peels his arms off and helps Jim stand. She walks with him to the bathroom. Jim looks back at his dad whose hands block his eyes. Doreen runs the hot water and grabs a wash cloth.
"You okay, Jimmy? You're dad just loves you so much. You know that." She pushes his sweaty hair back from his forehead and blotches his skin with the warm cloth. "I hope this rain goes away. Coney Island
His eyes stay closed, his lips tight. Doreen shuts the steaming water off and runs the cloth over his lips.
"No," he says softly, and listens for the highway.