This Monday our mannequin stops for pizza before catching a flight back to LA. Two surviving brothers share a moment after yet another family funeral.
What I’m Writing
Here’s a writing exercise I did for a course I’m taking with my writing group. The goal was to create a story around a memory shared by no more than three characters. Their voices should contribute to the reader’s sense of place.
Andy and Peter drape their coats over an empty chair, sit down at a table in a deserted pizza place in Queens. The room looks out on a creek, quiet today, two p.m. on a January weekday.
The owner steps up to the table, wiping his hands on a stained apron.
“Hey guys. Ain’t seen you in a while.”
“Hey Pat,” Andy says.
“No one else coming?”
“Just us today.”
Peter points to his brother Andy. “Andy’s sister-in-law. Michelle.”
“Hey, I’m sorry. Last time you was in here, it was a whole crowd.”
“What’s your poison?”
“Large pizza,” Andy says.
“Half pepperoni,” adds Peter.
“You got it. For you, I’ll make it right away.”
Andy looks around at the empty room. “Pat, we’re the only ones here.”
“Hey, I get delivery orders too, you know.” He disappears behind the counter.
Andy fingers the faded red and white check cloth on their table.“I swear these are the same table clothes from the last time we were here.”
Peter nods. Says, “So?”
“Yeah. Back again.”
“I know. Another in and out funeral for me.” Peter looks at his watch. “I got time to catch my flight, yeah?”
“Sure. JFK’s got security moving faster these days.”
The two turn to stare out at the creek, all the small boats covered for the winter, bobbing slightly in the chill breeze. Seagulls perch on several of the boats.
“See that white house across the creek? With the closed-in patio?” Peter points out the window. “The one with the floating dock?”
“My eighth grade girlfriend’s house. We used to swim off the dock after school in the spring.”
“Her name was Patricia?”
“Right. Good memory.” Peter smiles. “I never told mom I was swimming there. I would dry off as best I could, pull on my jeans over my bathing suit, and hope the wet didn’t soak through by the time I got home for supper. She never found out till Patricia’s mother met mom in the market and said it was so nice that we were all swimming every afternoon.”
“She must have been so pissed at you. Because someone knew something she didn’t.”
“Tell me about it. I had so much guilt laid on me over that. Why didn’t you trust me to tell me…”
“And have her say no, right?”
“Yeah. Trust me, but if it’s fun, no way.”
“I remember one day she was crying after she talked to you. Crying in the kitchen. She didn’t see me. Maybe that was the day.”
“Man, that was a lot of years ago,” Andy says.
Peter gets up and walks over to a jukebox standing along the far wall. He drops a few coins in, punches a couple of buttons. As he sits, the first song comes up. For the good times.
“Shit,” Peter shakes his head as he sits. “The day after mom’s funeral, Michelle said to me, Well, Peter, with her gone, you and I are the oldest in the family now.”
“I don’t remember her saying that.”
“Yeah, right here. Maybe this same table.”
“And now she’s gone.”
“You and me, man.”
Pat slides a large pizza pan down on the checkered tablecloth. “It’s hot.”
“I hope so,” Andy grins.
Pat tosses paper plates on the table. “Drinks?”
Andy asks for water. “Coke for me, Pat,” Peter says.
Peter reaches for a slice. Bubbling cheese, pepperoni crisp around the edges. Oil dripping onto the plate. “I miss this.”
Andy runs a hand through his hair. “First time we were here…right after dad’s burial. I couldn’t believe he lasted as long as he did.”
“Three years sober and the juice still got him.”
“I don’t think mom was upset at all.”
“What the hell. He used to get loaded, then throw rocks into Jack’s pool next door. She was mortified.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Sure, couple times a week. I’m surprised Jack didn’t slug him.”
Peter laughs. “For almost a year before she died, I’d call mom every week from LA and she’d say, if you can’t get in here to visit me, don’t bother coming to my funeral.”
“She said that?”
“And you almost didn’t, right?”
“Yeah. It was a busy time. I think I did it just to spite her.”
“That was a big wake. Everyone showed up. In the middle of winter. Probably afraid she would haunt them otherwise.”
Peter laughs as he scarfs down a mouthful of pizza. “I was so annoyed. People kept coming up to me saying, do you remember me? Shit, I hadn’t seen those people in thirty years. One guy, Johnny, the cop from Staten Island, he says, Remember me? I say, “Sure, Richie, how are you?”
“He says, no, I’m Johnny.”
“People do that.”
“It pisses me off. Just say hello and give me your name. Come on…I do appreciate that they came for the wake, though.”
Andy and Peter chew silently for a few minutes.
Pat comes over to the table with their drinks. “You guys, I was just thinking, last time you were in, you had your wives with you.”
Andy looks at Pat over his cheese slice. “Both gone, Pat.”
“Oh shit. I didn’t know.” Pat crosses himself. He waves his hand at the pizza. “This one’s on me. You guys been through a lot of shit.”
“You got that right, man.”
“Hey Pat,” Andy says. “How you doin’? Everything okay?”
“Yeah, business is good. Little slow for the winter. Come summer this place is a gold mine.”
Pat smiles. “Remember my daughter AnnMarie? Used to wait tables here?” He wipes his hands on his apron, pulls a phone out of his back pocket, thumbs through the pictures. “Here’s the whole family…at her wedding last June.”
Andy and Peter smile at the photo. “Good for you, Pat.”
“I been lucky.” He crosses himself again, walks away.
Peter hoists his Coke glass. “So, Andy, like Michelle said to me, you and me, we’re the oldest in the family now.”
“I still got some good years left in me. You?”
“From our lips…”
What I’m Reading
In the last few weeks I re-read two favorite books: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Only after I finsihed reading did I see the common thread of survival. Survival in nature. In life. Hemingway’s old man Santiago catches the fish of a lifetime, conquers it, loses to nature, but comes through it a winner. As one commentator said of Santiago, “…a simple fisherman whose pride in his endurance…” is coupled with a reverence for life.
I think the opening sentence of Hemingway’s book is a classic: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” It frames the entire story to come.
As the old man rows out into the Gulf Stream, he has three fishing lines over the side, each at a different depth. He muses, “I keep them with precision. Only I have no luck anymore. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”
Santiago’s pride in endurance guides him after he has reached the place in the Stream where he hopes the fish will be. “I could just drift, he thought…but today it is eighty-five days and I should fish the day well.” An inspiring thought for any of us. Fish the day well.
Paulsen’s thirteen-year old Brian learns to survive alone for fifty-four days in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash. Brian learns to build a fire. To fish. To make a bow and arrows. To hunt. And he learns that it is useless to cry.
“…he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work. It wasn’t just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that – it didn’t work.”
And the words of a former English teacher come back to Brian, helping him to stay motivated. “You are your most valuable asset. Don’t forget that. You are the best thing you have.”
Fish the day well. You are the best thing you have. Words to live by.
Find my stories on Amazon.
For adventure check out Off-Road.