A Deep Freeze
It took a long time for Nick to get the words out of his mouth, even to tell Eddie he couldn’t stay out past six. It was three o’clock and there was no school the next day, but he couldn’t stay out anyway.
“Why the hell not?” Eddie asked.
Nick opened his mouth and tried to speak.
An ice ball blasted the ground at their feet and Eddie ran to the neighbor’s high wood fence.
“How’s that, wops?” called Jay, an older teen.
Another ice ball sailed over their heads, crashing against the house, and a third blasted the wood fence just as Eddie peered between the tight posts.
“Get the hell away from my fence.”
A high snowball landed next to Nick and he backed away to the patio. Eddie joined him and picked up a shovel.
Jay laughed. “Run away, guinea wop bastards.”
Eddie circled around to the gate and Nick followed cautiously, gaping at him.
“I’ll stick that shovel up your ass,” Jay said. Then the back door of his house slammed.
Eddie returned to Nick, gripping the shovel in front of his chest, his teeth clenched. “We’ll get him,” he said.
Nick wanted to ask Eddie what a wop was, but his mouth stayed closed. Maybe it was because of winter. It was cold and his mouth was frozen and when he shivered his words were often stuck, but in summer he couldn’t get hid words out either. When his baseball coach Mr. O’Neill asked him if he wanted to play shortstop or third base, he stared at Mr. O’Neill before pointing to third base. Another time Mr. O’Neill talked to Nick about good bats and bad bats, but his own words came out wrong. “Let me fix my mouth,” Mr. O’Neill said and fingered his lips. Nick smiled.
When he got home, his dinner sat cold on the table and his mother was already doing the dishes. He looked at the lone pork chop and cream corn on a small plate and made a face.
“That’s what you get for being late,” she said. She shut the water off and faced him. “Maybe you’re bigger than me now, but I can always use a bat.”
In bed he wondered about wops. All of his grandparents were wops then, and so were their neighbors. So was his seventh grade Italian teacher Mrs. Petrocelli who had penciled eyebrows on her forehead just above her shaved real eyebrows. Nick often looked at all four of her eyebrows when she was teaching, and when she called on him he couldn’t answer. She was nice, though. A nice wop. And he was a wop himself, and so was his father. Before he’d gone home, he’d asked Eddie what a wop was, but Eddie only glared at him. “I’ll kill that Jay bastard,” he said, and he picked up one of the heavy cement blocks left over from the garden wall his father had been building the previous summer, just before a heart attack killed him.
“Tomorrow afternoon, man. See his new car? This is going right through the goddamn window.”
“He has a car?” Nick managed to say after a false start.
“His mother’s car, whatever. Tomorrow. Or…we’ll wait. We’ll wait a week until he ain’t expecting it, like the Mafia does.”
At home, he hadn’t asked his father what a wop was. After dinner, his father was outside changing the car’s spark plugs, and Nick wanted to ask him, but he didn’t ask. He watched his father. Then his father showed him what he was doing and let Nick loosen a spark plug and tighten a new one.
Now in bed, Nick remembered playing basketball by himself at the elementary school on Saturdays in the cold. Maybe he was in fourth or fifth grade then. He played a pretend game in his head. He was both teams. Their starting five took turns shooting. He kept track of the winners and losers and the players who shot best. He liked to be alone, and in his mind the voice of the announcer glided easily, and sometimes he was the announcer himself, smoothly whispering commentary on the game.
He was sleepy at last and as he turned over, he imagined asking Mr. O’Neill what a wop was and Mr. O’Neill saying, “Let me fix my mouth first and I’ll tell you.”
When he was in third grade Mrs. Knapp the librarian hugged him close. Sometimes she hugged him and many of his classmates at the same time, their faces buried in her chest. When he went into the stacks during free time, he found the baseball encyclopedia, and inside a cubicle, he flipped through it, studying the World Series winners and examining the dark and white faces in the photos. His favorites were Willie Mays and Tom Seaver. And he liked the photo of Ty Cobb hook-sliding into third base, his face full of determination.
The next day, in the junior high library, he looked for the baseball encyclopedia and couldn’t find it, but he found a book about the ’69 Mets. He flipped through it. He asked Tom Seaver in his mind what a wop was. “It’s nothing you need to worry about,” Seaver answered in his professional matter-of-fact way.
In the cafeteria, Eddie had the plan figured out. They would bring Charlie in on it too. Charlie would throw the first brick and then Nick and Eddie the other two.
“But,” Nick managed to say, the words stuck at first, “what’s a wop?”
“If you’re a chicken shit,” Eddie answered, “then don’t come.”
Nick looked at Eddie’s face as he continued planning with Charlie. He remembered Eddie’s father carefully fitting the cement blocks around the garden. Sometimes Eddie’s father spoke Italian to Eddie. Eddie understood him but always answered in English.
Nick’s father didn’t speak Italian but all of Nick’s grandparents did. At their house in Queens, he enjoyed listening to them talk easily around the dinner table and not knowing what they were saying and not having to answer. On their way home, Nick looked at his father’s profile as he drove. His father didn’t say much. Once he bought Nick a slot car set that had its own suitcase and he took Nick to the slot car races. He lay his hand on the back of Nick’s head, then ruffled his hair when Nick was able to keep his car on the track for an entire race.
His father owned a gas station. One time, Nick was in the car waiting for his father to close up. His father had an argument with a man who didn’t want the station to close. He wanted gas or he wanted his car fixed. He wanted something, but the station was closed. It was closed, his father insisted, and if the man didn’t leave— Then the man threw punches and Nick’s father fought him off, and at the end they were both bloodied and the man ran away.
“I didn’t want you to see that,” his father told Nick after starting the car. He tilted his head up as blood flowed from his nose.
His father stopped at an Italian restaurant in town and went to the men’s room for a while. The owner and the waitress fussed over him when he came out. They offered wet towels for his forehead and ice for his eye, but Nick’s father waved them off. No more blood was on his face but a black eye was coming. They ordered linguini and meatballs and Nick listened to the Italians talk around him and the music. When he looked up his father was smiling at him. He buttered a roll and slid it to Nick, and then buttered his own, and they both dipped their rolls into the sauce.
At four o’clock, Nick passed Jay’s house holding a basketball. There were no broken windows or dents in the fence or bricks on the lawn. He heard Jay’s back door bang closed and he hurried up the block. The Wilsons had a hoop set up on the street. He took the first shot and began talking to himself as though he were a glib announcer. Julius Erving and the Nets were playing David Thompson’s Nuggets. The teams were equally matched and respected each other. Defense and shooting would be keys to the game. He rushed through the game, taking turns as though he were the players, and if he missed a shot and put the ball in on the rebound, the other team got the points. The Nets won 21-18, and he headed home.
The Coluccio’s yard across the street from the Wilsons was empty. The Coluccio’s often went on vacation, and no one had been home for a week, so Nick went into their yard and climbed the rope ladder of their wood tower, a walled platform with low walls on four long stilts. In the tower, he took his baseball cards from his pocket and read through each players’ statistics. He thought of being on Mr. O’Neill’s team again next summer and talking to him easily about playing third base or short and not having to fix his mouth to talk.
He heard a cough and a laugh below, and then the creak of the tower. He had left the rope ladder hanging down. Jay was climbing up.
“Hey, Guinea wop, stay right there,” said Jay. “Wait for me, man.”
Nick stood near a corner of the tower as Jay reached the top. Jay’s face was red from the cold.
“Hiya, kid. Tell me you didn’t throw rocks at my house. You assholes almost hit my mom, you little shit.”
Jay grabbed Nick’s jacket collar and shoved him into the corner wall. Nick tried to anchor his feet to the floor as Jay bent him over the edge. He saw the sky and then his feet left the platform and his voice broke out, “No, no!” like it wasn’t his own voice, only a roar, and now the voice was bellowing.
Jay pulled him back upright on the platform again and let go of his jacket.
“Okay, then. Maybe you’ll keep your damn mouth shut now.”
Nick fell to his hands and knees, gathering his baseball cards with shaking hands. Then he lay on his side and frantically flipped through them. Jay stood over him, quiet. The wind whistled through the tower. Jay stood over Nick a while longer as Nick found his Tom Seaver card and stared at it. The other cards fell from his hands but Nick kept staring at the Seaver card.
“Shit,” Jay said. He gathered up the stray cards and held them out to Nick, finally placing them under Nick’s arm. “Relax, man, I won’t hurt ya.”
Shivering, Nick turned the Seaver card over and examined the back. Jay stood there a moment longer. Then his feet moved and the tower creaked as he climbed down the ladder.
Nick rolled onto his back and turned his card deck from back to front and looked at each player’s face, saying their names in his mind, until the sky beyond the tower was dark and it was too cold and maybe too late to avoid the bat at home, unless his father was there to meet him at the door.
Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice and Other Stories (2015) and Sure Things & Last Chances (2016). His stories have appeared recently in Eclectica, Prime Number Magazine, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. He teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner. Visit him at lougaglia.com