The Disappearing Fathers of Jersey City
We were city boys and we had city fathers. We all knew each other. We had no choice. There was seldom more than three feet between houses, and if the curtains weren't drawn, we could look right into our neighbor's house and see what was going on. Mostly nothing was going on, but here and there some argument would break out and we got to hear the whole story. We crowded by the window with our sisters and watched it like a television show. When the arguments came to our house, we knew it was our turn to be watched and because of this we didn't cry as much as we would have when our fathers started wielding their belts like whips. In fact, we tried not to cry at all, which our fathers would never allow, since they knew they were being watched as well. They swung the belts around like lion tamers, snapping it. "Just cry, damn it," they would whisper. So we cried. We played our fair part in the show.
We boys played wiffle ball in the long hot days of July. Our fathers watched us, standing by their destroyed cars, smoking Chesterfields and Winstons and Pall Malls, and talking. We boys never got close enough to know exactly what they were saying. As soon as one of us drew near, they would shut up and tell the boy to go back to the game. Around noon, one of them would bring out a cooler and our fathers would pop tall cans of Schlitz or Old Milwaukee or Schaefers, the really cheap beers that got them drunk. Every once in a while one of our mothers would poke her head out the door and yell, "You better not be getting drunk, you asshole." Our fathers would all toast to that, and go back to drinking. A little while later another mother would come out and say the same thing.
Baseball was our passion. Baseball was our thing. And we were all lousy at it. That didn't stop us, however, from dreaming about playing for the Mets or the Yankees or even the hopeless Braves. We taped our plastic yellow bats with masking tape and took crazy swings with the count sitting at no balls and two strikes. We dove on the concrete to catch line drives. We aimed to win every game, hit a homerun at every at bat. Or if we were pitching, strike the guy out in front of our fathers. We all played to an audience of one. Nobody wanted to fail his father.
Worse than failing, however, was when we were "the rat." The rat was odd man out, and if there was uneven number of players that day, somebody had to be the rat. The rat was designated catcher, a part of no team, or he simply sat on the side and watched. Nobody wanted to be the rat. Nobody. Some boys were played sick for two weeks after being the rat. We sat looking out our bedroom windows, wishing we were in the game, knowing if we went out now we'd be the rat again. Sooner or later, though, our fathers would say, "All right, get out there."
By mid-afternoon our fathers were all drunk and our play became very sloppy. We stopped diving for line drives and the pitchers would bounce the ball up to the plate. Our fathers, bored with everything by now, especially themselves, would hurl their beer cans at us and mumble to each other stuff about women and dinner and death.
On some mornings, one father or another wouldn't be there. We saw it all the night before. A police car came. It parked outside and the lights swirled around. The lights were all over our rooms and the sound was loud enough to shake our curtains. "I hate him," the boy's mother would scream. "Get the bum out of my house!" Something like this was always said. Something mean and true. The show was always on.
The father would be led out of the house, no shirt, a pair of jeans, hands behind him, hair like he put his head in a rotary fan. The police—there was always a dozen of them—stood by in statuesque poses, except for the arresting officers and the one trying to calm down the mother. "Pigs," our fathers would say, standing next to us, watching.
The mother would throw a shoe—or something else she could get into her hands quickly—just as the father was getting into the police car. This always happened. There was always a shoe thrown, or a rock, or a baby's rattle. It never hit anybody, but in the morning we'd see it lying in the gutter, half covered in pigeon shit, like an artifact from another time. It was the mother's exit from the stage—her grand finale—and after that the cop would lead her way, back into the house. The father would get into the car and be driven off.
The next day, we could see it in the face of the boy, a solemnity, a puzzlement, a despair. Special allowances were made in such cases. When choosing up sides, the boy with the missing father would get picked first. He could pitch if he wanted to. Soft line drives that he hit would be mysteriously dropped. Ground balls would go right between our Bill Buckner legs. The boy with the disappeared father suddenly became the best player. And he was never the rat.
The fathers, for their part, stopped throwing beer cans. When a ball went through our legs, an obvious error, they would yell to the boy, "Good hit!" or they would yell to the one who missed, "No way you were going to get that one!" They got less drunk—and a couple would bow out earlier than usual and go home. Sometimes the whole group of them would start working on one of the destroyed cars. They would point at things in the engine, draw diagrams on little scraps of paper, and crawl underneath the cars as far as their guts would permit.
The mothers seldom poked out their heads when a boy had a father who had disappeared. They stayed in the house with their daughters, watching television and cleaning their faces again and again. Phone bills were always higher when a father disappeared. The mothers called people they knew ten years ago and cried. They cooked dinners we never got otherwise. They made cakes and cookies. They tried to make themselves look pretty.
We felt for the boy with the father who had disappeared. We knew that it wasn't his fault. We knew it was nobody's fault. We did a lot of thinking, soul searching, self examination. When a father disappeared, everyone got as philosophical and maudlin as a Greek playwright. We hated it. We hated it and our fathers hated it and our mothers hated it. It wasn't who we were. We weren't thinkers. We were something else, something else entirely.
A couple of days after the father disappeared, he would be back again. Praise Jesus. We'd see him standing by his car, smoking a Pall Mall, as cocky and drunk as ever. All the fathers would laugh and suck on tall cans. Everything would go back to how it was before. We could sense the relief, and we boys didn't cut anybody a break anymore. We dove for anything that was close to us. We pitched our fastest ball. We swung the taped bats like they were bolts of lightning. We kicked the offending shoe into the sewer. The sun never seemed as bright, the air as clean, our souls as musical.
Everything was back to normal. Our fathers drank, watching us. We played baseball. We were city boys and we had city fathers. We loved them. We swung our bats and pitched our balls, knowing we'd never play for the Mets or the Yankees or even the hopeless Braves, but, if we were in the field, at least right now, at least for today, we weren't rats, not us, and not our fathers, either.
-James Valvis (from Waccamaw)