Fiction from NER 36.3 (2015)
The building was a tinderbox, especially in the dog days of summer. The oppressive heat, the close quarters, and the strain of trying to make ends meet pushed people to the brink of violence. Was there ever a night when a tenant didn’t wish for thicker walls, when he wasn’t tainted by the bad blood in a neighboring apartment?
Ralph lives and dies with the Dodgers, and he’s spent the better part of the last month dying. Thirteen games in front and it looks like a lock. Then it’s down to eight and it looks like anything but. Durocher and company keep reeling off wins and the Dodgers play like they miss being called bums. The slide takes its toll: Ralph is even more irritable than usual, he’s taking potshots at Alice with greater frequency and greater gusto. After one particularly devastating loss he stops at a luncheonette and picks up his very first pack of cigarettes. His uniform reeks; it takes only two days to burn a small hole in the lapel. If nothing else he figured it would curb his appetite but no such luck: he’s eating like there’s no tomorrow, even if everything tastes vaguely of smoke. After 154 games the Dodgers and Giants end up in a flat-footed tie, meaning that the National League pennant will be decided in a playoff and that Ralph is left dangling on a hook for at least two more days. Brooklyn drops the opener at home, which is even worse than it sounds because the next two are at the Polo Grounds. But with their backs to the wall the Dodgers win game two in a rout. Ralph’s elation is tempered by the thought that they should have saved some of those runs for tomorrow, which he’s seriously thinking of spending in a bar. He’ll call in sick like thousands of others; you don’t need a doctor to predict a citywide epidemic. But he’s torn like always, afraid of the repercussions, afraid of Alice and Mr. Marshall. He rehearses in a voice that betrays varying degrees of infirmity, running the gamut from it’s really nothing to you’d better get a priest. He floats an earache, the flu, food poisoning, pneumonia, and even whooping cough as potential excuses. But no matter how he plays it, he comes down with a bad case of the jitters. At one point he holds an imaginary receiver to his ear and hears himself say that he wouldn’t be coming to fever today because he had the work. The sentence gets stuck in his head and spooks every utterance thereafter, which all but clinches his decision. In the morning he leaves his apartment carrying his lunch pail, a transistor, and a good sized chip on his shoulder. As two o’clock nears, he wishes he were driving up Flatbush Avenue instead of Madison. He’d like to be in his home borough, swaddled in empathy, at the helm of a bus crammed with Dodger fans. The first four innings produce little but anxiety. Ralph finds himself taking his eyes off the road to stare intently at the radio, it gives him a modicum of control that would be relinquished by merely listening. Brooklyn finally pushes across a run in the fifth, but the Giants come back to tie it in the seventh. Ralph blurts out an expletive that offends an elderly woman sitting next to the door.
Watch your language, she says.
Ralph offers a glare instead of an apology.
Are you allowed to play that radio?
His entire life with Alice’s mother passes before him. Up goes the volume.
Would you please turn that down.
Ralph decides to have a little fun.
I said turn that down.
I can’t hear you.
She stands up and pulls hard on the cord, indignant to beat the band.
I want to get off this bus.
Oh, you’re getting off all right.
He pulls over to the curb, opens the doors.
Have a nice day.
The sarcasm as thick as an egg cream.
He smirks and steps hard on the accelerator, hoping to envelop her in the cloud of toxic exhaust. Her leaving is a piece of good luck, because the Dodgers score three in the eighth. The crowd is dead quiet, Russ Hodges is broadcasting a funeral. Ralph gets cocky and counts his chickens, reaching into his breast pocket for the White Owl Panatella he bought special for the occasion. Runs it under his nose like a swell at the Stork Club.
Three outs away. Dark leads off and slaps a ground ball past Gil Hodges at first.
Ralph hits a sharp, emphatic shit on the horn. Don Mueller singles to right and Dark goes to third. Ralph stows the cigar. Irvin flies out to first, Ralph allows himself the luxury of a breath.
Lockman hits a line drive over third that goes for a double. A run scores and it’s 4–2. Mueller slides into third and lies writhing on the ground. It’s serious all right, maybe a broken ankle. He’s taken off the field on a stretcher. Ralph hopes they have to amputate. Newcombe is finished, too. Dressen walks out to the mound and calls to the bullpen for Branca. Ralph’s namesake will face Bobby Thomson, the same Thomson who homered off him in game one. Ralph makes an unscheduled stop, he can’t drive and hyperventilate at the same time.
This bus is out of service, he roars.
You heard me. This bus is out of service.
Grousing and grumbling en masse. Passengers file out while Branca trudges in from the bullpen. Ralph hands everyone a transfer.
Come on, take one and scram.
Someone asks if he can stay and listen.
A Dodger fan, too. As he exits he tells Ralph where he can go, throws in a fatso for good measure. Ralph seals the door and Branca finishes his warm-up tosses. In steps Thomson.
Branca pitches, Thomson takes a strike called on the inside corner.
Hodges sounds remarkably composed considering the circumstances.
Bobby hitting at 292. He’s had a single and a double and drove in the Giants’ first run with a long fly to center.
Does anyone care? Like it’s the sixth inning of a blowout in early June and there’s languid air to fill.
Brooklyn leads it four to two.
Ralph can’t hear the traffic or the people banging on the doors of the bus.
Tell me that was static and not the crack of a bat.
There’s a long drive . . .
One Ralph can’t see, the other doesn’t want to look.
It’s gonna be . . .
But they both know.
I believe . . .
Hodges grabs hold of the nearest five words he can find and refuses to let go.
The Giants win the pennant.
The two Ralphs are sick to their stomachs. Hearts leap from windows all over Brooklyn.
The Giants win the pennant.
Ralph is gripping the steering wheel. Out pours rage and despair, a potent cocktail.
The Giants win the pennant. Bobby Thomson hit it into the lower deck of the left field stands.
All of 280 feet. Where do they get off calling that dump a ballpark?
The Giants win the pennant and they’re going crazy. They’re going crazy.
Euphoria blares from the radio. People on Madison Avenue are doing impromptu jigs, strangers with manic smiles are grabbing each other’s sleeves. But Ralph can’t see, he’s slumped in the driver’s seat, a game but overmatched fighter who’s been dragged back to his stool after being knocked out, who’s beginning to grasp the pitiless reality that it’s over.
The Dodgers lost the pennant.
Russ Hodges is talking himself down from a cloud. Ralph can’t turn off the radio.
The Dodgers lost the pennant.
He’s transfixed by the utter finality, by a defeat of colossal, improbable proportions.
The Dodgers lost the pennant. Bobby Thomson hit it into the lower deck of the left field stands.
If this isn’t the worst day of Ralph’s life it sure as hell feels like it. Alone in the bus, he’s jostled by a crowd of sullen memories. In the concrete bowels of the Polo Grounds, the other Ralph is mauled by a crowd of reporters. From this day forth, the Dodger pitcher will always be a bum. The Brooklyn bus driver has always been a bum. One has been tainted by a single moment, the other by a litany of disappointment. Both are inconsolable.
Alice stared at his hands. Smooth and professionally manicured, they could have been mistaken for those of a woman. She couldn’t see Frank Costello’s face. But given his lovely hands, she assumed that it was smooth and unlined, that a barber had given him a shave that very morning. She could only see the cuffs of his dark suit, which no doubt was custom tailored. Costello was reputed to be a member of the Mafia, a word that Alice had never heard before. Not just a member, but its leading light, a man who controlled and profited from drugs, racketeering, gambling, prostitution, and loansharking. But Costello claimed to be a legitimate businessman, an exemplary citizen who was being hounded merely because he was Italian, like Mrs. Manicotti, because his last name had the misfortune to end in a vowel. Which prompted his attorney to object to having the television cameras show his client’s face. Mr. Costello does not wish to be part of a spectacle. Amazingly, the House Judiciary Committee went along. A technician suggested that the camera focus on his hands, the Committee shrugged and said why not. Alice couldn’t take her eyes off them. They betrayed a man in a state of great agitation, even if his disembodied voice remained calm. I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might incriminate me. It hardly mattered what Senator Estes Kefauver asked in his stately Southern drawl, the reply was always the same. I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might incriminate me. And all the while his beleaguered hands acted like they’d rather be somewhere else. They fidgeted nonstop: drumming incessantly on the defense table, fondling a glass of water, compulsively tearing sheets of paper into shreds. Nails dug into palms so deeply that Alice expected to see blood. She took a moment to inspect her own hands. They couldn’t hold a candle to those of the witness. Alice wished that she could treat herself to a manicure, that she could afford such an indulgence. She wished she could testify to the drudgery of housework, the drudgery of being a housewife. She was sure women all over Brooklyn would hang on her every word.
Ralph wouldn’t be home for a couple of hours. The housework done, Alice sat at the dining room table playing solitaire. She glanced out the window, the view ran smack against an identical apartment building no more than fifteen feet away. A half hour went by and she hadn’t won a single game. She gathered the cards but instead of shuffling walked into the bedroom and opened the top drawer of her bureau. Hidden beneath her stockings and underthings was a black photo album. She couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder, as if someone might see what she was up to. The album was filled with photographs, photographs she hadn’t taken. They were of people she didn’t know and places she’d never visited. They’d been carefully torn from magazines like Life and Look. Alice sat on the bed and slowly turned its pages. She gazed longingly at images of Paris, London, and Rome. She beheld the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal. She saw herself lazing on a white sand beach that was all but deserted, that was backed by swaying palms instead of a teeming boardwalk. Alice had never been on a plane. The idea seemed nearly as improbable as boarding a rocket ship. Imagine being swept into the sky, flying to Europe. It even sounded so unlike Brooklyn, just saying it made her feel worldly and sophisticated. Did I tell you, I’ll be traveling to Europe in the spring, as if alluding to a love affair with a much younger man, untroubled by convention or appearances. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to stroll its cobblestone streets, its stately, sun-drenched boulevards, to sit at an outdoor café and order coffee or a glass of wine in French. Again she looked out the window. The view was still blocked, the offending building silently stood its ground. Alice sighed. She closed the book, slowly ran a hand over its cover, and placed it back in the bureau drawer.
The junior senator from Wisconsin waved a piece of paper in the air. I have here in my hand a list of 205 people who were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department. It was a seminal moment in the life of Joseph R. McCarthy. On the strength of the list and the speech, he started acting like a real big shot. The act must have worked, because much to his surprise and satisfaction, people started treating him like one. But Ralph wasn’t sure that McCarthy fit the part. Like Sal Maglie, he always looked like he needed a shave. He was as loud and as belligerent as Durocher: had there been an umpire at the televised hearings he would have tossed the senator out of the rotunda. Much like the Giants’ skipper, he seemed to relish making a scene, something a big shot like Mr. Marshall abhorred. Whatever Marshall did he did quietly and without fanfare, he wielded power from high above the fray. Ralph had never heard of McCarthy until he held up the list. Neither had anyone else outside of Washington and Wisconsin. The number of Communists kept changing, the press dutifully reported the up-to-the-minute totals. The senator never stated the number of Communists who resided in Brooklyn. Neither did his churlish chief counsel, Roy Cohn, who being from the Bronx might have been in a position to hazard a guess. But no doubt there were plenty. Not to mention legions of Communist sympathizers, who were every bit as dangerous. Ralph found it both funny and frightening but above all confusing. Because in truth he had only a hazy idea what a Communist was. McCarthy sometimes made it sound like anyone who was less than happy with the status quo qualified as a Red. Ralph groused about his job, about his boss, about his paycheck. So did most of the guys down at the bus depot. So did virtually all the men who rubbed elbows at Callahan’s after work, who doused their frustration in beer and whiskey before going home. Ralph was no Red; he doubted any of the others were. They were too busy trying to eke out a living to attend secret meetings, which apparently was what Reds spent most of their time doing. But Ralph wondered what would happen if his name ever appeared on a list, if he were called to testify before the committee, if under the harsh, unrelenting glare of television lights he were forced to answer questions posed by the bullying Senator Joe McCarthy. Despite Ralph’s bluster, he was easily intimidated by authority. If McCarthy began by asking if he were a Communist, of course Ralph would answer no. But in all likelihood it would be a shaky, barely audible no, a no that was utterly unconvincing, the no of a man who sounded like had something to hide. McCarthy would press on. He’d act as if he knew the answer to every question he asked. What Ralph said would be of little interest or importance; the senator would be intent on making his point and wouldn’t allow denials to interfere, and Ralph would become more and more flustered. He was a good American, or at least a good Brooklynite, which was the only America he knew. But if saying that he was a Communist would stop McCarthy’s hectoring, if it would put a halt to the barrage of questions, well, he would say he was a Communist. Ralph exhaled and wiped his brow. Luckily, he had nothing to fear from McCarthy, who was angling for bigger fish and bigger headlines. He would never be called to testify, to defend himself against baseless accusations. But Ralph felt as if his name were on a different list altogether. Written in indelible ink were the names of people whose labor produced little in the way of fruit. Fate ran roughshod over their dreams, an unseen hand had stacked the deck against them. And even if there were no lights or cameras, even if the whole nation weren’t watching, even if no one would hear his confession, Ralph thought admitting you were a loser would be much more difficult than admitting you were a Communist.
They would forever be childless. Alice had wanted a baby, naturally, but Ralph was dead set against it. On a bus driver’s salary? In this tiny apartment? But a baby wasn’t something you could just forget, a longing wasn’t something that could easily be brushed aside. Ralph was right, it wouldn’t have been easy. But she felt the money was just a convenient excuse, especially in retrospect, because it always seemed that the more Alice wanted something the more impassioned were Ralph’s pleas of poverty. Funny that her closest friend was also childless; maybe that was the unspoken basis of their bond. They were fond of saying that they were married to children and one was plenty, thank you. Alice dreaded a walk through Prospect Park. Sundays were the worst, there seemed to be more infants than pigeons. One was more adorable than the next, but most of all she was struck by how content their parents looked, how they walked unhurriedly along the graceful, curving paths, speaking softly to each other, stopping every so often to lean over the stroller and fuss with the baby, to stroke a forehead or adjust a blanket that didn’t need adjusting, to try to elicit a priceless, unforgettable smile. And after they fussed they kissed and after they kissed they walked just a little slower than before, walked like their place in the world was assured, like they’d found a niche that comfortably housed their dreams and desires. But Alice felt emptied of everything except resignation, her dreams and desires had been evicted a long time ago.
The judge is impassive, standing there motionless with her arms folded across her chest. The defendant paces and circles the spartan living room, making a rambling, agitated plea for forgiveness. He tries to explain why he was taken in by another crazy, harebrained scheme. He states that in fact he had every reason to believe that it was a surefire scheme, the kind of opportunity that knocked maybe once in a lifetime, and that only a fool would refuse to answer. The judge seems not to be listening so much as waiting. She has heard more or less these same words before and will no doubt hear them again. He admits that in retrospect his judgment was indeed poor, that he was blinded yet again by dollar signs, that he should have known better. He pauses for a moment, then adds that the money was really for her benefit, that he’d planned to use the bulk of it to buy her the modern conveniences she’d always coveted, conveniences that would make her life so much easier. The judge is unmoved, the defendant wonders if this last remark was a mistake. He keeps hoping for some sort of response but none is forthcoming, a tacit sign that his apology has yet to run its course. He’s made a terrible mistake, he continues, a mistake which he realizes endangered their financial stability, their very future. He is gesturing wildly, his voice is down on its knees. He swears that this time he’s learned his lesson, that it will never happen again. Finally, the judge breaks her silence. Well, I certainly hope so, she says, managing to look exasperated and pleased at the same time. Ralph’s humiliation is complete. Alice has exacted her pound of flesh. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
Ralph keeps shoving popcorn in his mouth without taking his eyes off the screen. A few swigs of soda and he’s got to take a leak. But he decides to deal with the mild discomfort. He doesn’t want to miss anything, not now especially. He’s been hooked from the get-go, when a guy got tossed off the roof of his apartment building. He’d immediately recognized the two actors who stood calmly in front of Johnny Friendly’s bar after the murder: Tami Mauriello and Two Ton Tony Galento, ex-pugs who’d both been knocked out by Joe Louis, even though they both had the satisfaction of decking the champ earlier in each fight. But now they’re dressed in topcoats, smoking cigars and talking like wiseguys, which Ralph assumes doesn’t involve much acting, and they’re telling Marlon Brando why the guy had to go. The building whose roof the poor sonuvabitch got thrown from looks pretty much like Ralph’s: there’s wash hanging on the line and people shove their heads out the window to yell to a buddy downstairs because it’s easier than picking up the phone and besides there isn’t any phone. The neighborhood is made up of working stiffs like Ralph, guys who break their backs and always get the short end of the stick. But at least Ralph doesn’t have to make payoffs in order to work; at least he isn’t threatened by goons and leg breakers. He thinks maybe driving a bus isn’t so bad, at least compared to swinging a hook on the New Jersey waterfront. Ralph watches Terry Malloy and his big brother Charlie in the back seat of a taxicab. Charlie’s trying to talk him into taking a cushy job on a new pier, but his measured tone belies the urgency of the offer. Ralph figures Terry would jump at the chance. It’s easy money all right, because it’s hush money. Charlie is trying to buy Terry’s silence, only Terry isn’t so sure he wants to sell. On account of his conscience but mostly on account of the girl. Which is a serious problem for Charlie. So serious that without warning he takes a gun from the pocket of his camel hair coat and sticks it in his kid brother’s ribs.
Take the job.
Terry and Ralph are stunned.
Charlie . . .
Terry shakes his head in pity and disbelief.
Charlie . . .
Ralph has stopped eating popcorn. Terry gently pushes the gun aside.
Charlie . . .
Ashamed and confused, Charlie fishes for something to say.
How much do you weigh, slugger?
An ill-timed visit to a long time ago. He’s smiling now, smiling at a memory that’s been carefully edited. Ralph is caught off guard. Terry’s disbelief turns to disgust.
When you were 13 pounds you were beautiful.
Terry’s face says don’t go there.
You coulda been another Billy Conn. But that skunk we got you for a manager brought you along too fast.
Leaving Terry no choice.
It wasn’t him, Charlie. It was you. Remember that time you came down to my dressing room and said kid, tonight’s not your night, we’re going for the price on Wilson.
The strings dark and melancholy.
My night I coulda taken Wilson apart. So what happens? He gets a title shot outdoors in a ballpark, and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville.
Spilling his guts on Charlie’s three-hundred-dollar coat.
You was my big brother, Charlie, you shoulda watched out for me a little bit. You shoulda watched out for me just a little bit, so I wouldn’ta had to take all those dives for the short end money.
Pinning him in a corner.
We had some bets down for you, you saw some money.
A desperate feint that only serves to enrage.
You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Not just a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it.
Ralph sees his soul flicker on the screen.
It was you, Charlie.
Let’s go look, said Alice. Just for fun.
Come on, Ed, said Trixie.
They’d been talking about it for more than a week now, the boys saw it was no use saying no. And maybe they were a little curious themselves. Ralph borrowed a car from Joe Parinello down at the bus depot.
I owe you one, he said, as he took the keys.
Forget it, you done me plenty of favors.
The sun was gloating. Alice, Trixie, and Norton were waiting in front of the apartment building. Ralph pulled up in the black Buick and playfully honked the horn. They opened the doors and quickly climbed in. Ralph rolled down his window and headed for the Belt Parkway, which would take them to the Southern State Parkway and out to Long Island. It was a kick to be at the wheel of a car instead of a bus, to drive devil-may-care on this near empty stretch of road instead of bump and grind up Madison Avenue. There was surprisingly little in the way of scenery, the land on both sides of the parkway was flat and treeless. It clashed with everyone’s idea of paradise, which was where they were headed, even if it went by the fancy name of suburbia. Alice put her hand in Trixie’s and kept looking for some indication that they were nearing their destination. Ralph put on his signal and got off at Exit 28. He drove slowly; according to the directions they were less than a mile away.
A minute or two later they saw Carlisle Road.
This is it, he said, and made a right.
The houses on both sides of the street all looked to be identical. Neatly aligned, like rows of headstones, they were set the same distance apart and the same distance from the sidewalk. Each was fronted by a lawn, a modest, rectangular expanse of real, honest-to-goodness grass, just like at Ebbets Field or Prospect Park.
Boy, it’s quiet, said Ralph.
Here it was, a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and there was less of a racket than on a typical Brooklyn street at three in the morning. Ralph didn’t see a single person sitting on a stoop.
Where is everyone? he asked.
Maybe in their yards. All the houses have yards, said Alice.
Or maybe they were sitting inside: if she owned so lovely a house, Alice thought she might never be tempted to leave it. If everyone was inside, Ralph figured it was because there was no place to go. They hadn’t seen a store of any kind, not a grocery, a butcher, a pizzeria, or a luncheonette. Nor had they passed a movie theater, a pool hall, or a bowling alley. They coasted until they spotted 3606 Carlisle Road. Ralph parked on the street. Everyone got out and stretched their legs, and while they stretched they noticed a man standing in the driveway.
Mr. and Mrs. Kramden?
Please call me George.
His handshake was hearty, he’d obviously had plenty of practice. His black hair was thinning and parted cleanly on the side. He looked like a businessman in his dark blue suit and striped tie, but he wore a smile that seemed to be apologizing for the serious attire.
And you must be the Nortons.
Welcome to Levittown.
Thank you, thank you very much.
Well, shall we have a look around?
The house took Alice’s breath away. It had a living room, a dining room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a half finished attic, and a backyard. She couldn’t imagine having so much space. Imagine all the furniture they’d have to buy. George Travis saved the best for last. Alice and Trixie nearly swooned when they saw the kitchen. You would have thought Cary Grant was fetching ice for a highball from the freezer. Spotless and spacious, equipped with brand new, modern appliances, the kind Alice had coveted all her adulthood, the cabinets and sink of stainless steel. George stood there beaming. He’d seen the same reaction countless times before but got a huge kick out of seeing it again. He mentioned that the stove and refrigerator were made by General Electric, which made a big impression on the boys. They knew zero about appliances, cared zero about appliances, but they knew the name General Electric. It was a real high-class outfit, no doubt about it. Ralph had never stepped foot in Mr. Marshall’s kitchen, but he wouldn’t be surprised if his boss had a GE stove and a GE refrigerator.
What do you think? asked George Travis in his professional, easygoing way.
I love it, said Alice.
It’s wonderful, said Trixie.
The heads of the households were conspicuously silent, which wasn’t a good sign. The realtor looked in their direction. So did Alice and Trixie.
Alice held her breath. They were just looking, but still she held her breath.
Swell place, said Ralph.
Real nice, said Norton.
Do you have children, Mrs. Kramden?
The question caught her off guard.
No, no we don’t.
Trixie shook her head.
No point talking about the fine schools. He walked them back into the living room and gestured towards the window.
Wonderful people live here in Levittown. People with the same values, the same dreams. Like you, a good many are from Brooklyn. They moved here, in part, because they weren’t happy with some of their new neighbors.
Come again, said Ralph.
The colored, Mr. Kramden.
George Travis smiled, the sort of smile that appears when one is stating an obvious but important fact.
What about them?
You won’t find any here.
No, Mr. Kramden. I can assure you.
Ralph had no particular feelings about the colored. He didn’t mind that they lived in the neighborhood and hadn’t minded when they didn’t live in the neighborhood. The only colored he paid any real attention to, that he saw with any regularity, were members of the Dodgers and Giants. If he understood the realtor, Jackie Robinson would not be welcome in Levittown. Neither would Campenella, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays, or Monte Irvin. Maybe Levittown would appeal to the Yankees, who didn’t have any Negroes on the team. George Travis asked if anyone had any questions. No one did. He handed Ralph and Ed business cards with his name and phone number. But it was just a formality, he knew that he wouldn’t be hearing from them again. No matter: he was showing the house to three other couples that very afternoon. By day’s end the house would probably be sold. He led the Kramdens and the Nortons out the front door and onto the sidewalk. They shook hands and exchanged goodbyes, which were more subdued than the hellos. Slowly they walked to Joe Parinello’s car. Before she got in, Alice took a last look at the house. She said very little on the ride back. She guessed that their apartment would seem even smaller and shabbier than before. But she wasn’t completely sold on Levittown. Brooklyn was in her bones, the space inside her could barely contain its sights and sounds. What she was sold on was the prospect of a brand new start, it appealed to her even more than a brand new kitchen.
She turned to her husband.
What do you think, Ralph?
Against her better judgment she’d allowed herself to get excited. Now her excitement was replaced by embarrassment.
Neither one can compromise. They’re entrenched in opposite corners, unwilling to meet each other halfway.
The bell sounds.
Ralph circles warily, looking for an opening.
Ralph cajoles, Alice resists.
Ralph roars, Alice reasons.
Ralph pleads, Alice stares.
Ralph threatens, Alice doesn’t budge.
Ralph cocks a fist, Alice stands her ground.
The two of them, nose to nose.
Ralph’s rage bids a reluctant retreat.
Alice wins, Ralph loses.
Ralph and Ed are bachelors. Alice is staying at her mother’s for a few days, Trixie’s staying at her mother’s. They decide to catch an early movie at the Paramount and then play a few games of pool. Ornate and opulent, the theater is a veritable palace, a venue more befitting an opera or a royal wedding than the premiere of Damn Yankees. Ralph cadges a seat in the aisle and Norton sits down on his right. On their laps are popcorn, Jujubes, and sodas, but a half hour into the picture they’re in need of reinforcements. Which will have to wait because Gwen Verdon is in the middle of a sultry song and dance number. Jaws drop, temperatures rise. Hundreds of hearts pound in rhythm. The sound is deafening and then it’s silenced by an explosion. The theater is rocked back on its heels. Chaos reigns, people run for the exits but mostly run into each other. Smoke makes it difficult to breathe. If there’s a woman who isn’t screaming it’s because she can’t stop coughing. And somehow through it all Gwen Verdon continues to dance, but now the only one watching is a smitten Tab Hunter. Cops and firemen pour into the theater. It’s a miracle that only a handful of people are seriously hurt. Ralph is a little woozy, he steadies himself with a hand on Norton’s shoulder.
Are you all right, Ralph?
I think so.
Blood is streaming down his forehead.
You got a real bad cut there.
Alarmed, he puts a hand to his forehead. When he sees that his fingertips are red he nearly faints dead away. Only then does it begin to sink in.
We coulda been killed, Norton.
Norton takes out his handkerchief and tells Ralph to keep it pressed on the wound. For Ralph’s sake he tries to remain calm, which under the circumstances isn’t easy, even for Norton.
What was it?
A bomb, I think.
A bomb? Who coulda done it? You don’t think it coulda been the Russians?
I don’t know, Ralph. Somehow I doubt the Paramount Theater on Flatbush Avenue would be high on the list of Russia’s military targets.
I don’t know. Some nut, I guess.
A cop asks if they’re okay.
He’s cut pretty bad, says Norton.
That needs to be looked at. The ambulance will take you over to the hospital.
I’m fine, officer. Really.
Come on, don’t be a hero.
Ralph’s no hero. It’s just that he’s unnerved by the thought of going to the hospital. But in the back of ambulance his thoughts are back at the theater.
We coulda been killed.
He manages to take seven stitches without passing out. Norton thanks the doctor, who didn’t come after him with a needle and thread. The streets are plugged with police cars and firetrucks. The subway has been shut down as a precaution. There’s little choice but to walk, and Norton insists on baby steps. He shepherds Ralph home and up the five flights of stairs. He takes Ralph’s key, opens the door to his apartment. The first thing he does is get Ralph into a chair, the second is turn on the radio. The newscaster confirms it was a bomb and says that the police know who planted it. But they don’t have a name, only a moniker: The Mad Bomber. For sixteen years he’s been planting bombs all over the city, terrorizing the populace and tormenting what’s cracked up to be the finest police department in the world. The only real clues are the letters he keeps sending. Each one mentions Con Edison, where the first two bombs were planted, and promises that the company will be brought to justice. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it’s the handiwork of a disgruntled ex-employee. So all the cops have to do is track down everyone who’s got a grudge against Con Ed. Which would be fine except that everyone’s got a grudge against Con Ed. They’re a monopoly for chrissakes, about as popular as the IRS, only instead of once a year they take your money every month. Ralph is so rattled, he isn’t sure he can ever walk into a movie theater again. He isn’t sure he can walk anywhere. What if the guy planted a bomb on his bus? It occurs to Ralph that he’s a disgruntled employee of the Gotham Bus Company. Not to mention the disgruntled husband of Alice Kramden. He’s got a list of grievances a mile long; what if he started planting bombs? But the city has nothing to fear from Ralph Kramden. He’s got a bomb all right, but it’s ticking inside him.
You’re making a big mistake, Alice. For the rest of your life you’ll regret it.
Don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic?
He’s a bus driver.
So? Daddy was a welder.
To be a welder is no disgrace, it takes real talent. What kind of future will you have?
We’ll be fine.
He’s so fat.
You can do better.
Alice wasn’t so sure.
Her mother wore her disdain for Ralph like a medal. She had to be dragged to the wedding and made a point of letting everyone know that if it were up to her she would have stayed home.
Well-wishers approached and offered congratulations.
Condolences is more like it, she snapped.
It wiped the smiles off their faces and almost managed to put one on hers. She went back to her drink as if nothing had happened, her fourth or fifth of the afternoon, while the well-wishers bid a hasty retreat. Her unhappiness was recorded for posterity, she wore a puss in every picture.
All of it made Alice uncomfortable but not uncomfortable enough for Ralph. What she told him that day, she kept right on telling him for the next fifteen years.
Just ignore her.
Ignore her? Ignore her? That’s easy for you to say.
She unfailingly appeared to be more upset by Ralph’s outbursts than the invective that inspired them. He wondered why Alice never let her mother have it, why she refused to read her the riot act. Not once did she tell her in no uncertain terms that if the taunts and insults didn’t stop, she’d never set foot in their apartment again. Instead her reprimands came off like a lawyer’s obligatory, half-hearted objections, which he knew that the judge would never sustain. It was a way of getting her displeasure on the record, should Ralph ever take her to task for not coming to his defense. In the end he had no choice but to take Alice’s reticence as a sign of tacit approval.
Alice walked on eggshells, approaching the bathroom with one hand on the hallway wall and her head turned slightly to the side. She closed the door even though she was alone in the apartment. Maneuvered herself until she was standing flush against the sink, and only then did she confront her reflection in the mirror. Her right eye was almost completely closed. Alice barely touched the swollen eyelid and snapped back her hand, not from pain but from the anticipation of pain. Again she moved her hand towards her eye. She watched her fingers press down on the eyelid, and as she watched she felt the pressure, which confirmed her worst fear. The mirror was not playing a trick. The swollen, discolored face that sheepishly stared back was indeed hers. The realization made her wince. It laid bare the knowledge of how it was inflicted. Ralph had hit her. Her husband of fifteen years had reared back and slugged her, right in the kisser, the sort of roundhouse right that even a club fighter would have easily avoided. She didn’t go to the moon, instead she landed in the emergency room of Kings County Hospital. She sat there waiting with Trixie’s arm around her shoulder, dazed but alert enough to feel ashamed. Ralph had wanted to go but Trixie wouldn’t have it and Ed told him he was better off staying put. The three of them sat there for what seemed like forever, put on the back burner by a knife wound, a heart attack, and a child with a dangerously high fever.
Trixie helped her to her feet. The nurse waited and watched.
Easy does it, said Ed.
A youngish but weary looking doctor asked what happened.
I fell down the stairs.
He stole a look at the nurse.
Seems women in Brooklyn are always falling down the stairs.
Alice bowed her head.
The stairwell is so dark. And I’m just clumsy, I guess.
It’s all right hon, said Trixie.
That’s what Alice planned on telling everyone in the building, that she fell down the stairs. She doubted that anyone would believe her, but it really didn’t matter because she had no intention of leaving the apartment. Maybe in a few days, maybe in a week, whenever the swelling began to go down. If the swelling began to go down. Because despite the words of the doctor, despite the reassurances of Trixie and Ed, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her injury would never heal, that she was permanently disfigured.
She decided to stay with Trixie. For a minute she considered staying with her mother but was wary of the rants and the lectures, the endless I-told-you-so’s. Trixie was no shrinking violet, especially where Ralph was concerned, but it wasn’t the same thing.
I hate to impose, said Alice.
Impose? Don’t be ridiculous. You stay as long as you want, you hear me?
Alice was close to tears.
Ed will open the cot, you can sleep in the living room.
Sweet kid, said Ed. It was hard not to stare. He gently touched her shoulder.
Trixie fixed Ed with a look that Alice didn’t see, a look that said it was partially his fault because Ralph was his friend, because he was a man and all men were alike.
I think I’ll go pick up the paper, get a little fresh air, he said.
Good idea, said Trixie, who wasn’t fooled for a second.
Bye Ed, said Alice.
He went downstairs to see Ralph.
Norton. Come on in, pal.
Happy as hell to see his closest friend. Happy and anxious.
How is she?
Okay, I guess, but with her eye like that she looks like Carmen Basilio.
Doctor said nothing’s broken, it should heal okay.
She say anything?
No. At least not to me.
I bet she’s getting an earful from Trixie, Ralph thought. He paced with his hands deep in his pockets.
I don’t know, Ralph. I always knew you had a temper but I never figured you for something like this.
Ralph swallowed hard.
Look, I know Alice can be a pain in the neck, I know what it’s like sometimes, believe me. You think being married to Trixie is a walk in the park? But jeez, did you have to go ahead and hit her?
Ralph guessed that he did.
She gets on your nerves, you scram. Go get a beer, go bowling, whatever.
Thinking of Alice having the last word, Ralph felt himself getting angry again.
Boy, you really put me in a tough spot. Alice is gonna be upstairs for who knows how long, Trixie wants to kill you and me.
I didn’t mean to put you in the middle of this.
I know, I know. I just wish you hadn’t done it that’s all. You’re my best friend but Alice is a friend too.
What are you trying to say, Norton?
Half question, half accusation.
I’m saying that belting her like that was a lousy thing to do.
That was as far as he’d go. Ralph didn’t press any further.
What am I gonna do, Norton?
You gotta apologize. What else can you do?
Sure, he was sorry. But he didn’t totally trust himself. What started as an apology might end up something else.
How am I gonna apologize? She won’t even see me. She’s afraid to be in the same room with me.
Can you blame her?
Norton wanted to take it back as soon as it slipped out. Ralph glared but hard.
I’m sorry, Ralph. Look, you got to give it a little time. A few days go by, you come by the apartment, maybe you bring some flowers, you say you want to talk, she’ll listen.
Ralph wasn’t so sure.
What about Trixie?
What about her?
Come on, Norton. You know as well as I that Trixie’s always had it in for me. The two of ’em cooped up together, you think she’s telling Alice to forgive and forget?
Norton thought he had a point. Thought this wasn’t the time to concede it.
Forget about Trixie. I’ll talk to her, make sure she minds her own business. You just worry about what you’re going to say to Alice.
Ralph started to worry.
Ralph took his time getting over to Bedford Avenue. If he had been going to a game he would have walked at a brisk clip, eager to behold the heart-stopping sight of the immense, immaculate field. He took extra care to look at what he had seen his entire life. He found himself saying hello to many of the people he passed, and fought an urge to begin telling them the bare-boned facts of his life, a life that had never threatened to flee the confines of Brooklyn. Soon he could see the brick façade of Ebbets Field, which was cordoned off by menacing hulks of machinery. Ralph endured their tumultuous, hacking coughs. The noise drowned out his memory of the lively buzz that flitted around the ballpark before a game: the cries of vendors hawking pennants and programs, the fans’ rhythmic banter as they moved towards the turnstiles. He walked up and leaned his weight against the barricade. A small crowd had come to watch, smaller than would have assembled for a meaningless game in September with the pennant far out of reach. People fidgeted and smoked, a few cops were on hand just in case. Through a film of tears Ralph could see Jackie dancing off first, the Duke’s homerun trot, Furillo playing a carom off the right field wall and cutting down a baserunner at third. The Brooklyn Dodgers were now part of the past. Wait til next year, people said, after another season had ended in bitter disappointment, trying to turn their hurt into hope. But there would be no more next year, next year had been stolen by a manicured thief who posed as a businessman, a crime so audacious that an entire borough would pay for it. A workman signaled with a wave of his hand. The crane lurched forward, clumsy but dogged. Slowly the iron wrecking ball was hoisted in the air. Ralph’s whole body tensed, as if he were readying himself to absorb the terrible blow. The ball swung back and came crashing forward: even Pete Reiser never crashed into a wall with such force. Ralph flinched and his knees buckled at impact. It was a terrible mismatch: the brick façade crumbled without any resistance, the same way that Alice had crumbled. Unable to tear himself away, he stood at the barricade until the sun began to fall from the sky, transfixed by the sight of a ballpark in ruins, by the knowledge that the damage could not be undone, that he had no idea how to pick up the pieces.
Wayne Michael Winfield is a writer and creative director at a New York advertising agency. He has written a memoir, A Heart Out of Tune, and a collection of essays about golf titled An Eloquence Words Can Only Envy. He has two children and lives in Westchester, New York.