Measure twice cut once

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.”

“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!”

Potholes

Three cars sat in the driveway, cultivating a world in rot. Their flattened tires spilled down across the concrete, baked to a cragged barren surface. This black desert landscape was full of life — invasive Jersey Fresh tomato vines crawling up the rubber walls, bay sand embedded in the threads, glass twinkling in the sun. Survivor of Many Offensives, Builder, Black Sheep, First (and Only) of His Name, Father to Three, Husband, Brother, Grandfather (to be) and survived by all, including these, his armada of rust (but they didn’t put that in the obituary).

Mom wanted to clear the driveway and revive the garden since church hadn’t exactly inspired the spirit-haunted distraction the old chaplain promised. And anyhow she didn’t want the neighbors thinking her a poor old widow that kept a shrine room to her dead husband, like leaving the slippers just so beside the bed as he left them the morning of the attack. So she divided the spoils among us three: I, the oldest, naturally took the heaviest of those burdens, three unflipped economy vehicles, do whatever the hell you want with ’em, the Toyota actually runs. 

Nick and I drove that once blue ’92 Camry back to New York and he congratulated me on the new whip. “You might have inherited the Ding Dong Dealership, but you know I got all the cool shit,” including Dad’s crucifix-made-weed-stash and a stack of Playboys that Mom pretended to ignore through its 30-year black-plastic-wrapped subscription. (I laughed a little thinking how she might receive the renewal notice in a few weeks and call him a dead prick or something.) We hit a Garden State deficit-sized pothole on the Parkway that sent his Skittles and Wawa iced tea flying all over the car and he cursed the Governor, the goddamned purpose of tolls, public infrastructure, something about a rat’s ass and all things holy including Jesus himself just like Dad. I felt a little moved by it actually and submitted a weepy, shaky voice fuckin’ A, man for good measure. “The Sultan of Swing” was on the radio and I cranked it up through the two speakers that worked. We drove on to New York, bumping along on that shockless frame.

     Goodnight, now it’s time to go home
     And he makes it fast with one more thing

Now fall’s here, only two vehicles remain with their tomato vines rotting wide open for the fruit flies and a skinnier Rudy the Dog. Mom’s driveway is clear and she doesn’t bother with church anymore. Meanwhile, the Camry sits in a downtown Brooklyn garage, across the river from our apartment, awkwardly alongside luxury vehicles and vanity plates for three months like a public school kid who snuck into the Preppies’ homecoming – three months we hoped to fill with family visits to nature, Storm King, emergency diaper runs at the new Target, weekend getaways to Cape May to visit nonna... But after a billing blow-up in which I was called a badman thief in thick patois (seeing right through my “forgetting” the car rent), we drove it one more time to Chinatown. For a week I battled my neighborhood’s parking bullies, experts in the waiting game of opposite-side street sweeper rules. (I was called other names.)

I received a call in response to an inquiry for donating used cars to veterans in need. “Yes, yes,” I said, “the vehicle is still available. It’s so cool you called me back. You know my Dad was a survivor of the Tet Offensive!” A long silence. The caller said she’d send a representative from the VVA in Philadelphia that afternoon to pick up the Camry and leave a tax form for that sweet, sweet deduction. If I timed it right, the tow truck would arrive just before the street sweeper stormed down the block, kicking up dust and a mad rush of angry Cantonese retirees in minivans. And, sure, I’d feel good about it too, my “commitment to those who served” and all.

Waiting for the pickup, I turned on the radio and caught the tail-end of an interview in which a woman was saying,

…and we do it this way because we can’t in real life. Here, we’re all going to the same place, and it’s not a good one

Odd, I thought. An ex-Catholic, I assumed the “same place” people took a more agnostic view of the afterlife, neither good nor bad given its no-thing-at-all state of, well, literal nothingness. In that moment, I surfed a bigwave of guilt and regret for donating the car and wished I could call Tracy from Philly’s VVA back to tell her, “Hi, me again – the son of the Tet Offensive survivor. Remember me? Yeah, about the car…” But it was too late. Time to make some veteran’s day with a beautiful once blue ’92 Toyota Camry, no shocks, two speakers and a Hoffa-sized trunk.

Jimmy, the VVA’s driver, spoke in a thick northeast Philly accent like my Mom. I could hear his Eagles Super Bowl Champions LII tattoo under his cliche striped mechanic’s long-sleeve with the little name-patch on its breast: Jimmy. “You might wanna check the car again for any personal effects.” In the glove compartment, I flipped up the manual to find an old a cassette of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill. The album opens with a song called “Do It Again” that my Dad used to play at full blast through long rides at night, my child-mind remembering only the scary thunderstorm drives, his joyous singing at odds with the chaos around us. I could hear him through that cassette:

You go back, Jack, do it again, wheels turning ’round n ’round

But I left it, closed the compartment and handed the keys over to Jimmy. “All yours, buddy.”

I hoped the next guy had a falsetto.