by Ian S. Maloney
In the basement of our green house in Marine Park, an industrial green carpet was laid with beige and black patterned lines. A fisherman’s net was cast from the drop ceiling and a harpoon was anchored on the wall, next to an oar slung atop two industrial hooks. Bookshelves and cubby holes were built into the wall, constructed out of pine and cedar. It looked like a honeycomb. A couch was placed before a television entertainment center. The flower printed cover of red roses and green vines was worn away. Its pillows were depressed and its springs sagged in the middle. The threadbare fabric had black grease stains on it and cigarette burn holes. Ashes accumulated in the crevices of the couch. The nautical coffee table was strewn with glasses, bowls, cups, and magazines.
All of this was right next to the new makeshift office for dad’s company, South Brooklyn Exterminating, and the brown cabinets separated the sleeping space from the office. In the back of his basement, a tool room grew with drills, hammers, saws, and screwdrivers. He stacked some of his traps and gear here as well. Then, model airplanes and ships started to follow. Row after row of model packages grew down there like weeds. Every week a few more ships and planes came into the house in plain brown paper bags.
Our weekly routine was this: dad came home and handed dollhouse furniture to my mom and sister. She carried it to her space in the dining room, and then dad and I went to work on building models in the basement. Every Friday, we did this after dad’s hospital work. I imagined what it was like to be a soldier, a sailor, a pilot in every object Dad handed me. My favorite one was a battleship Yamato, which had Japanese directions, and we’d probably never open to build.
We worked past my bedtime. Dad had a florescent bulb overhead, which never needed changing. It burned day and night in the toolroom for years. He then had a bright lamp on his workbench to peer into the small crevices of plastic models. He had a set of paints lined up before him. There was a scalpel and tweezers arranged on the countertop. A coffee can collected his paintbrushes.
Underneath the workbench was a small collection of dusty bottles in various colors. Magazines were stacked next to the bottles. On the cold grey floor, bolts and screws were strewn about. Kitchen cabinets lined the wall of the tool room. They came down after our house remodeling. Inside the detached cabinets were plenty of spaces for children to squeeze into and play. When dad was working, I came down here and dreamed about a place of my own inside the white cabinets, next to the workbench and circular saw. I thought about Fridays, Dad entering with models to build and stack and the time after work we’d spend together downstairs. Women stayed upstairs in the dollhouse dining room; men descended into the cellar to build models.
Dad’s hands were always calloused and leathery when he walked in. They were black with grime and nicked with blood and needed to be washed with scalding hot water, Lava soap, and bristly scrub brush. He didn’t use gloves in the field, said he couldn’t feel what he was doing with them. The wire mesh he fitted into roof holes to prevent squirrels from nesting was done bare-handed.
When he came in tonight, I ran to the medicine cabinet in our bathroom and pulled out a Batman super hero Band-Aid to place over his open cuts. He patted my head, and he never opened the bandage packages. He handed the packages to my mom and handed us two brownies from the hospital kitchen. They were gooey, topped with walnuts.
We ate the deserts, wrapped tightly in hot cellophane before the television. In low whispers my mom and dad were talking in the kitchen. Faint, strange sounds, almost like whimpering, came from the kitchen.
A few minutes later, mom came with her dollhouse package and said that I should join them in the dining room.
“Why can’t I go with Dad? I don’t want to do dollhouse stuff. I wanna be with Dad!!”
“Give your father a little time, Jonah. Ok? For me? At least give a half hour or so, got it? He’s had a rough day at Sloan Kettering. Ok?”
“This isn’t fair. I don’t want to watch dollhouse stuff. It’s ridiculous and stupid!”
“You’re stupid!” Merry said.
“Stop, stop, both of you. Dad needs to handle a couple of things before you join him, all right? No big deal.”
“Fine, but I’m staying here with my guys.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want those dumb Yodas, or Skwalkers, or Chewbaccas here anyway!”
“Whatever Merry, whatever.”
I sat on the floor with my Star Wars action figures, refusing to join them. Every few minutes I asked to run down into dad’s basement. I buzzed the house with Luke’s X-Wing fighter, taking aim at mom and Merry’s houses. Lando, Han, and Chewie were in the Falcon. Han had Hoth gear on this time. Yoda trained Luke on the coffee table in the Dagoba system.
Merry and mom opened the new packages and moved the figures from room to room. Tonight, they were hanging tiny curtains in the Victorian mansion. Merry moved the fake cat and dog around, from room to room. Mom strung up the new curtains and put the other ones away for safekeeping. I continued to attack the houses like they were Death Stars. Mom relented after forty-five minutes.
I went downstairs quietly. A Rangers game was on tv. Intermittent hisses came from the radiators and creaks from the old pipes. The faint smell of mildew mixed with the lingering odor of cigarette smoke. Dust clung to the glass of his entertainment center and his endless shelves of books, papers, and devices. Dad slept on a couch down there, said he needed the tv to sleep.
Dad wore blue jeans and construction boots every day of his life. They were in a ball on his couch, and his monogrammed work shirts hung from the pipes above—button-up shirts in different solid colors, South Brooklyn Exterminating emblazoned across their left pockets. His right pocket was always filled with a pack of cigarettes, a few toll receipts, and a Parker pen. His chemical-stained, hardened and muddied work boots were cast off under the coffee table. A faint chemical odor, perhaps a pyrethroid, permeated the air. The carpet was wet under the table from the periodic floods that crept through the seams of the house. A forest of mold and mushrooms grew in the recesses behind the oversized furniture. Wires hung from the ceiling; there were circles in the ceiling tiles, from where the radiator upstairs had leaked, and seeped its way below. In the office area, the light of the answering machine was blinking 3. Dad had yellow handwritten route cards in a wooden cubbyhole. A dry erase board, hung with fishing wire, swayed in space from the ceiling. In blue and red marker, neat Catholic school handwriting, Dad wrote out his work days. His four-week schedule was printed there, from the Rockaway nursing homes to the racetracks, the Hunts Point market in the Bronx, out to insurance offices in Long Island. There was a steady, punctual rhythm to it. And yet, it missed the emergencies, return trips, special services, one-time stops, and countless favors.
When I entered the toolroom, Dad was bent down, working like a friar copying a sacred manuscript. His eyes were close to the table and he was dabbing glue on a plane’s wing. He then swabbed the excess glue from the tail rudder and turned the decals into position on the plastic wings. My approach startled him.
“Hey, so how you doing Jonah? Didn’t hear you come down here. Pretty stealth.”
“I just didn’t want to break your concentration, that’s all.”
“Thanks for that. Take a seat, buddy. Just needed a little time tonight, to get my head on straight. Tough day at the office, as they say.” Dad pulled my stool closer to his. Before the workbench, there were two identical stools. In red and blue permanent marker, Dad wrote our full names on them. James J. Fennell. Jonah O. Fennell. The seat rocked back and forth and steadied as I climbed into it. He resumed his work.
“They’re always tough, though, right? What you always say.”
“That’s true, boy, but sometimes certain things are a bit rougher than others, you know what I’m saying? Like different and difficult to get your head around.”
“What happened today?”
“Well, I told your mom I wouldn’t say it, but you can handle it. You’re a man. Just don’t open your mouth to Merry, all right? She doesn’t need this shit so young. And no repeating it back to your mom, hear? Promise?”
“Sure, I won’t say a word.”
“Well, I’ve been seeing this little girl every week at Memorial for awhile. Not sure how long it goes back now. Probably a few months. She’s been fighting cancer.”
“Yeah, well, she’s about your sister’s age. Anyway, I’ve been popping into see her every week. Bring her a Strawberry Shortcake figure, bring a brownie, usual stuff to brighten up things a bit, since she’s going through all this shit.”
“Which ones did you bring her?”
“You’re missing the…., I don’t know, whatever ones I came across at Toys R Us really. I don’t remember. That’s not the point of the story.”
“Oh, right. Makes sense, I guess. What’s her name anyway? She getting better?”
Dad stopped talking and took a drink from the soda in front of him.
“Name was Carrie. And, no, not getting better. She didn’t make it Joan, if you can believe that. What a fucking world, right? Around your sister’s fucking age.”
“Jesus. Sorry, dad. It’s awful. You ok?”
Dad drank a little more from the cup and tried to arrange some of his tools for the model tonight.
“That’s why I needed a little time. Just difficult to swallow. The whole thing.”
“Really sorry to hear that.”
“Makes you think, that’s all. Nothing is fucking guaranteed. Just seems fucked up that God would take a kid so young, so innocent.”
“Definitely not, but that’s life, right? Shit sandwich sometimes. That’s what you’re served.”
“I guess so.”
“Ain’t nothing you can do about it, either. Like my dad. I told you about him, right?”
I nodded and knew he would retell the story.
Dad reached for his lighter in a metal ashtray, caked with black soot, next to the workbench. Ashes and butts and wrappers were down in the reservoir, waiting for disposal. Dad filled his lighter with a blue and yellow can of Zippo every few days. It was silver and smooth to the touch, square in shape. The top flicked back and his finger clicked the igniter. The familiar click of the top, the flash of the butane, the glowing of his cigarette as the tip turned orange. He sucked the smoke into his lungs and spewed it all over me. A haze bathed me in a blue cloud, until I gasped for breath and brushed away the smoke.
“So, I used to work odd jobs here and there. We were living in Flatbush. Your nanny, grandma, she used to work sewing baseballs in a factory. Then a chocolate factory. Cleaning houses. Anything she could to make ends meet. And then there was my father. Fennell, that’s all she called him. Sonofabitch was a welder. Wicked motherfucker. He’d get his check and blow it all on booze, whores, ponies. You name it. Uncle Donny got out of there as soon as he could. And I tried to pitch in. Keep things working for the rest of us. Nanny was caring for seven of us before Aunt Rene and Donny left. A lot of shit to shoulder, especially with a thug like my father, coming home blasted, pushing her around, not coming back at all and disappearing for a few weeks.”
I stared into my father’s hazel eyes. He was back in the Flatbush house, and I knew the story he was about to relate.
“And you know what that prick did to me? His own son?”
I nodded and he continued.
“So, I’m working two jobs, saving up a couple of bucks to buy models and records. Be able to get some things on my own. You know, we didn’t have shit. Nothing like the stuff you guys expect.”
“I know, we’re lucky.”
“Damn right. Well, the old man comes homes one day after an early toot at the bar. Starts digging around in my room, I guess, looking for smokes or cash, whatever. Sits down in the chair and lights a cigar. Boom. Asshole falls asleep and burns down the fucking house. Whole, damn thing. Moron fell down the steps on the way out, too. Broke his leg, and then, then comes the best part! He tells the firemen that his long-haired loser son burned the place down. Imagine the balls? I punched him right in the face when I got home and would have dragged him down the street, if the firefighters didn’t separate us. Lost my records, models, everything. Basically all the measly bits of crap I had, and he blamed me for the whole thing. I got the fuck out of there as soon as I could.”
“That just stinks, dad. I’m sorry you had to deal with that. That’s when you went west to California?”
“It’s all right boy. That was when I went out across the country. Shit makes us stronger, is the way I look at it. My dad wasn’t worth shit, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with crap like that by sitting around for more. Off to the coast. Only came back when the bum was long gone. Ghost of himself drinking ripple in the Bowery in the end. Disgrace.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t sound like a good person.”
“He wasn’t, but he taught a lot of valuable lessons. And one of those is that life doesn’t guarantee you anything. Really do have to work hard, prepare for the worst. What life always taught me.”
He grew silent and drank a large gulp from the soda.
“Can I help you with anything tonight?”
“Of course. Why don’t you go get some hot water from upstairs in a cup. Could use that in a bit for more decals.”
I got the hot water in a few paper cups. Dad built the jet quietly. This was one was almost done.
Once a model was completed and the air had dried the pieces together, we placed it carefully in an old glass display case. The case was stripped down with varnish and its bottom was lined with old wallpaper from my parents’ first apartment. Tonight, Dad asked me to place the last decal into place. I peppered him with questions of what was next on the list.
“So, I say we try to do one of the submarines next.”
“We’ll see. I was thinking we tackle one of those tanks. God knows we’re not ready for the Yamato.”
“No, that’s going to be epic. We won’t get to that one for years.”
Models waiting to be built surrounded us, stacked everywhere. We had squadrons of jets and boats, tanks and trucks, ready for an impending imaginary battle. Sometimes, I imagined coming down there when dad was away and flying the models around. They swerved through the space down below and were rearranged in the glass cases by my hand alone. Utmost care was taken not to damage a single wing, propeller, or wheel in my play. The models went back in the cases exactly as they were built and placed.
Dad had me handling the decals in the water. He set two small lids with water before me. Gingerly, I used the tweezers to dampen the stickers before placing them on the wing. My father watched patiently. The bullseye of the British warplane settled in its spot. My eyes were getting tired. To combat my drooping eyes, I reached for dad’s soda glass.
The liquid touched my lips and tasted strange. Dad’s hand grabbed my arm and the glass spilled out of my hand on to the floor. His fingers pulled the glass from my palm and he yelled:
“Jonah, you never ever grab a drink when you don’t know what’s in it! It could have been poison for all you know!
Tears sprang to my eyes, as he released my arm.
“But, I saw you drink it and I was thirsty.”
His face was red. He staggered for words and just stared at me. I ran up the two flights to my room in tears, wondering what I had done wrong by sharing my father’s strange-tasting soda. My mom and sister were asleep, and I never discussed it with them. A couple of weeks went by and we didn’t build models anymore. I stayed away and watched the collection grow dust in stacks and on the shelves. I stared at them sometimes from inside the white cabinets where I hid.
Ian S. Maloney was born and raised in Marine Park, Brooklyn. A former NYS Pest Control Technician, he now serves as Professor of Literature, Writing, and Publishing at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, NY, where he directs the SFC Literary Prize for mid-career fiction. Ian is on the Literary Council for the Brooklyn Book Festival and is a Board Member of the Walt Whitman Initiative.
Image Source: Alex Mihis/Unsplash