I fell asleep on the couch with my shoes on. It was late. When I woke, the room flashed in a shifting blue light. I heard George Bush’s voice, suddenly interrupted by a jingle for the Pennsylvania Lottery. The light flashed again. Steven Seagal was breaking arms with one swift hiyaaa! I sat up and saw my Dad with a screwdriver in one hand, the remote in the other, his face turned up into the focused seriousness he reserved for bad action films. He looked at me, took a sip of something I could smell from across the room and told me to go to bed. He said I’d learn to swing a hammer tomorrow.
The first house I worked on was gutted down to a bare skeleton of wooden supports. I imagined falling the 20 feet from the floor joists to the cold foundation. Would my knees smack my chin and explode my teeth all across the concrete? Would I live? Dad yelled after me to hurry back with the blue dustpan and brush. It was pink, but I worked out early on a codex to translate his color blindness into everyone else’s spectrum. I came balancing back across the beams and stood behind him, admiring the ease with which he tied the repaired joists to their wall supports. I leaned in for a closer look. The hammer’s claw side clipped my mouth and sent a shard of chiclets flying down to the basement below. They weren’t baby teeth.
On the way back from Philly one year, we stopped at a gas station so Mom could empty what she called her outside stomach. Dad thought it would be funny if we drove the car around back and secretly watched her puzzle over our disappearance. He nudged me as she came back out, barely containing his laughter. She took but two looks – left, right – and in that moment I knew all of her loneliness and pain. She didn’t seem annoyed, just abandoned, and immediately burst into tears. She dropped her tired body and bag of iced teas down to the parking blocks. Nobody spoke much on the long ride home, except Dad and his piss poor attempts to cover shame with jokes.
My Dad’s parents still lived in Philadelphia. Their place on Marple Street was a brick row-home with a stoop. I remember the inside: mirrored walls, a dining room table stacked with biscotti tins (fatto a casa) and a large picture book that documented honeymoons, baptisms and graduations. I asked Nonna to tell me the story about Tommy, her sick boy that died before adulthood. They didn’t keep pictures of him. I was too little then to understand why.
My fifty-six sutures came out the first week of college. Dad had needed a last-minute extra hand on a roofing job in Cape May, which I reluctantly agreed to for 50 bucks and a box of Dominos. Bad move. Timmy showed up drunk, red in the face, smelling like a bottle of cheap. It was a hot day on the roof. As we worked our way backward from the ridge, I shoveled the shingles off the right side of the roof. Timmy was supposed to shovel left, but again: hot day, strong drink and his shingles piled up on a skylight in my trail. I stepped into an accidental booby trap, falling downwards 15 feet onto a glass patio table. I brushed it off and took a walk. It wasn’t until lunch, as I finished my last slice of pizza, that Dad sent me home. He said my back winked at him when the sun twinkled off a square inch of glass. Mom and I picked freshman electives in the emergency waiting room.
Camden, nine years old. I didn’t know what hospice meant except that it’s where Grandpa took strong pain pills and became extra funny. He impersonated Nonna’s thick Italian accent, pointing at the wall and yelling, “looka da ducks! Looka dem! Sta ta zit’ e mangia!” Later that day, Uncle John told me they met and fell in love in a cardboard manufacture called Newman & Company. She nursed him to health once after an unbalanced ream of flutes toppled and concussed him on the factory floor. Then on, he never let the other Irish guys say a bad word about her dark skin.
On the first year back from Chicago on Winter Break, I smoked out of a gravity bong, had a massive panic attack and told a high school crush I loved her. I practiced my new black & white fundamentals on Nonna and Grandpa’s headstones in snowy Germantown. Dad made me resume old chores: chopping wood for the fireplace and taking the dogs for walks on the bay. Then the family took its usual trip to Cherry Hill for last minute shopping on Christmas Eve and returned to our house ablaze in a five alarm fire. 2 floors, 5 dogs, 25 years. All gone, but we got to watch it go with the neighbors like a festive bonfire. We rebuilt a year later. The walls still smell of smoke.
Summertime in South Jersey, I was eight. My Dad dug out an old tool belt for me from a pile of empty Odoul’s in the Ford’s cab seating, while Ed Larkin sat up front drinking his coffee, not much for words. He asked if we could make a stop on the way and if we had any rope.
“Rope?” my dad asked.
“Yeah, for the pig.”
“Right, I gotta pick up a pig on Tabernacle. Put ‘im in the back.”
“Alright. I got some extension cords, will that work?”
“We’ll see,” said Ed.
Ed and Dad fought that nasty fat pig for close to two hours while Ed’s cousin Chucky entertained me with Swans Strawberry Pops. Almost by the time the box was emptied, Ed and Dad were hoisting the pig into the Ford’s bed. But the extension cord snapped under its weight and the pig went running off wild up West Cape May bridge. It squealed and squealed as a 16 wheeler peaked over the crest from the other direction. But the pig kept running, and it squealed until Dad yelled, “look away, son!”