THE BASTARD CHILDREN OF JOE ROCCA, a novella
It was late afternoon in the photograph; an August afternoon at the beach, caught and frozen in black and white. Joe and Lina smiled into the camera, trying to manage their two small children, Nate and Amanda. Nate wore a New York Mets baseball cap several sizes too big so that it drooped down over his nose, the mouth below it smiling widely in milk-toothed high spirits, arms and legs flailing as Lina held him, both chubby fists tossing sand into the air. Amanda gnawed on Joe's left forearm, toothing like mad, her drool running down his wrist and hand.
Joe and Lina sat above the small-scale chaos, smiling into the camera, seemingly glad to be there despite toothmarks and flying sand -- a young, attractive couple at the high watermark of their marriage.
Looking at them poised beneath the clear Polaroid sky, it's easy to believe that their life together would remain golden. From one moment to the next, though, there is simply no telling what the Fates may toss into the mix -- true love, found money, a pie in the face; who knows? No one can say for sure, which doesn't help the anxiety-prone a whole lot.. On the other hand, there's not much point in worrying too much about what's on the way. Or so the positive thinkers tell us. Better to stumble forward and enjoy the scenery, hoping we won't be standing on ground zero when the falling piano hits the sidewalk.
Joe Rocco was the falling piano, his wife and children found themselves standing on ground zero. I know -- I was the little boy in the photograph. Thirty years later, part of me still is that little boy, held emotionally like a fly in amber.
My sister, Amanda, sits across from me as I hold the photo. The tips of her hair are dyed bright lavender and she has a small gold stud through one nostril. Her eyes are hazel, she's dressed in black, and she fairly vibrates with emotion, her legs crossed, the airborne foot swinging rhythmically as she smokes to satisfy her nerves. We heard from our father today, you see, and we're trying to decide how to respond.
Amanda grinds out her cigarette in the ashtray, a couple of sparks fly before the butt gives up the ghost. "So," she says, "what do you think we should do?"
I put the photo down and sigh, with no idea how to answer. I finally tell her that, her expression makes it clear that she was hoping for something more helpful.
She turns her head, staring out the window so that her face is in profile to me, and I have a sudden recollection of her, one of my earliest memories. We're no the way to school, her first day in kindergarten and the beginning of my first-grade year. We walk along in morning sunlight, not talking, both apprehensive about the day that lay before us. We cross the lawn that stretches around the school, I look at her and see her face in profile. The sunlight illuminates her face with a glow that I've since only seen in cinema, so that she appears soft and gilded. A butterfly approaches across the lawn, moving in a slightly unpredictable, gamboling line of flight. We stop walking, and when we do the little creature lands on Amanda's shoulder, the shoulder away from me that is in full sunlight. The butterfly perches there for ten or fifteen seconds, slowly extending and closing wings of orange and black before it takes off again. Amanda's hand seeks mine then, closing around it for a brief moment, and we resume walking, our shoes damp, blotted with dark water stains from dew-covered grass.
The current Amanda turns back to me. An envelope with more photographs rests on the coffee table, some of the photos scattered around. Amanda leans over and examines the pictures, moving them about with an index finger. "Who's this?" she asks, pointing at a photo that shows another couple with Joe and Lina.
I look at the picture, turn it over, find no one identified, no names written on the back. "You don't remember them?" I ask.
"Me neither. One more mystery."
My sister sits back and peers at me through the last of the cigarette smoke that drifts in the air. "You hungry?" she asks.
I shrug in response, saying, "I don't know," a vague tinge of something annoying in my voice. Fatigue, despair, whatever.
"Don't be pathetic. We need to eat."
I capitulate, we drive downtown in my car with the windows open. Amanda's hair is growing out after an especially short summer cut -- it's medium length now, long enough that it wiffles around in the breeze.
"You know," she says, looking at me then back at the road, "we're a mess. One phone call from that shitstain and we're falling apart."
"Well, he hasn't been a source of great things."
"I hate this," she says in response. I look at her and see unshed tears in her eyes fighting a losing battle for life. My sister has, to a large extent, gotten herself through her 31 years by will power, forceful enough to punch holes through concrete. She is a strong, sharp, impatient, invigorating person. Many of her romances end because she wears her partner out.
"What are you in the mood for?" I ask.
"Hey, me too," I say, my mood improving a teeny bit.
"Why," she wonders aloud, "can't we figure out how to respond to Joe as easily as that?"
"We probably could," I say. "If we really wanted to. If we got all focused and efficient."
Amanda snorts in wordless comment. We park, get a table in a restaurant, and as we're waiting for food to arrive, Amanda lights another cigarette. The waitress happens by and asks in polite, tentative English that Amanda not smoke. She points to a no-smoking sign, smiling apologetically. Silently, with stony mien, Amanda crushes the cigarette out on her plate and hands the plate to the waitress, who thanks her then hurries off to get a replacement.
"Don't be unkind," I tell my sister. She looks at me, exasperated. I decide to get down to business. "So," I say, "the old man."
"The old man," she echoes and exhales wearily, a kind of sigh characteristic of the family, actually dubbed the Rocco sigh many years back by us after a particularly dramatic example by our mother. The waitress arrives with a new plate, food materializes immediately after. As I"m digging into a mound of rice and chicken, Amanda says, "Tell me what his message said again."
I chew for a moment, then speak. "He said hello. He said it was Dad, then added, ‘your father, Joe.' He sounded a little awkward. He said he wanted to talk with you and me, maybe we could meet for a cup of coffee, and he left a phone number with an area code from the western part of the state."
"Did he say where he's living?"
"No, just left the number."
"Why the big mystery? Is he afraid if we find out where he lives we'll start demanding money or scraps of fatherly affection? What's the matter with this jerk?"
My mouth is full, so I spread my hands in ignorance.
"So," she continues, "what do we do?"
I shrug. "Call him I guess."
"Right. Or don't call him." She fixes me with a look. "You guess? What a big help. What do you want to do?" I look at her helplessly, with no ready answer. She looks down at her plate and stares at her food. "He wouldn't have called," she finally says, "if Mom was still alive."
"Not if he was in his right mind he wouldn't," I agree. "So?"
"Nothing. Just that he wouldn't. Why he's calling now?"
"Maybe he wants to see his kids and he thinks the coast is clear now with Mom gone."
"Maybe he has a surprise coming."
It feels disorientingly strange to talk about the family father figure. Early on in our lives, as soon as our mother got over the initial shock of Joe's departure, she declared him a non-person. After that his name was only mentioned at the risk of provoking intense blow-ups. Nothing could anger Lina the way a mention of our father could, the resulting rages towering over the household the way thunder clouds tower over small towns, blotting out the sun with dangerous weather.
And it wasn't just that he deserted us. After Joe was gone and Lina recovered enough to think about divorce proceedings, she found out that the justice of the peace who married them -- an old boozehound Joe knew -- was bogus. The justice had, at one time, apparently been the real item. Something happened, who knows what -- maybe the drinking became disruptive enough that it finally couldn't be ignored -- and he lost his title. Might be he'd begun losing the ability and focus to do anything more than wobble forward, lost in the daily alcoholic haze -- for whatever reason his shingle never came down, he continued performing marriages until the authorities got wind of it, clamping down sometime after my parents appeared before him.
For all we know, Joe had no knowledge of that and went into it as innocently as our mother did. According to Lina, it's also possible that for reasons unknown he went into it knowing the justice had been defrocked, not believing it would make any difference or failing to take the occasion seriously enough. I've always found that idea difficult to swallow, but regardless, our parents produced two children in a fraudulent state of wedlock. Two illegitimi, two little bastards. That's us.
Today, bearing children out of wedlock is stylish; back then it was terrible, shameful. A friend of Lina's worked in the town hall and came across my parents' names in the ex-justice's records. When she disclosed the news to Lina, she swore it would go no further. And of course it leaked out anyway. School became a place of daily torment, forcing my sister and me into many fights. I was not great at defending myself, but Amanda fought like someone possessed, leveling kids two and three years older than us, sometimes taking on more than one opponent at a time. She didn't always win, but even when she lost she inflicted so much damage that the winner gained a healthy respect for what she could do and gave her a wide berth from then on. She became lethal enough that kids finally left me alone because no one wanted to find themselves dealing with her.
"I don't want to call him," Amanda says, bringing me back to the present.
"So we won't."
"You think that's all right?" A change in her tone gets my attention. I look up and meet her gaze, her eyes revealing a blend of uncertainty and vulnerability that I've never seen in her before.
"Of course it's all right."
She nods and her eyes say a quiet thank-you as she pats her lips with a napkin.
Later, back at my apartment, the phone rings, I let the answering machine take it. Amanda starts at the first ring and drops her cigarette, there is a slight scorch mark on the rug when she retrieves the butt.
"Shit," she says, "sorry!" She tries without success to brush the burn off the carpet.
"Forget it," I tell her. "It doesn't matter." But it does. I just didn't have the heart to lay that on her right then.
That's a problem I sometimes have: saying things I don't mean in order to spare feelings. My sister does it too at times, when she's not using words like a blunt instrument. Maybe that was why Joe's departure was such a bombshell, because he'd never expressed discontent, always talked around it and hoped the problems would go away. My parents probably found it easier to live with the discomfort of the unsaid and the reality beneath it all, at least until critical mass was reached. My memory of the year before my father left is that the air in our home felt thick and stifling. Amanda says she recalls the two of us spending most of our time away from the house during that period. I can't say. I don't remember.
After my sister leaves, I listen to the answering machine. No message, just a dial tone. Could have been anyone.
I get into bed with the envelope of old photographs and fall asleep surrounded by pictures of a young, happy couple and their children -- small, glossy shards of a family that briefly existed then broke apart.
In the morning, I wake and find the photographs scattered around the bed. I collect them and put them back in the envelope. Afterward, when I'm making the bed, I find the picture from the beach hidden in my sheets. I stick it in the frame of my dresser mirror and stand looking at it, the small, square frozen moment overlapping the present moment that's reflected in the glass -- two different images of my life, 30 years apart.
It's Saturday. There are errands to be put off. I sit at the kitchen table doing just that, sipping a cup of coffee. As if on cue, the phone rings. I let the answering machine take the call, listening to see who it is. A woman's voice says, "You're there. I know, you're there. Pick up the phone or tonight when you're looking for romance...." Spilling coffee, I grab the phone.
"Hey, doll," I say, groping for napkins to wipe up the spill.
"Hey." It's my squeeze, Jeanne by name. "What's going on?" she asks.
"Nothing much. Waking up. Hoovering down coffee."
"Me, too. What'd you and the Terminator decide?"
"We're not going to call him."
"You feel okay about that?"
"I think so. At least right now."
"What if he phones again?"
"I don't know. We'll see what happens. Listen, don't use nicknames for my sister. Please?"
"Yeah, no good. Use her real name."
"Okay, sorry." She sounds a little hurt.
Jeanne calls Amanda 'the Terminator' because my sister has a habit of ending conversations with her somewhat abruptly. In fact, on the whole Amanda seems to deal with my sweetie in a fairly brusque way. I think about that as I toss the sodden napkins in the sink. Outside the window, house sparrow are hopping down the slope of the next-door roof, chirping back and forth. I hear Jeanne breathing softly on the other end of the line, I ask, "So what do you think about tonight?"
"I don't know. What are you in the market for?"
"Dinner. Maybe a movie. If you're good, I'll let you gimme a kiss."
"Hey, wow," she says, sweetly sarcastic. "Want me to come over there?"
"If you want."
We set a time of 6:30, say good-bye and hang up. A moment after I put the phone down, it rings again. I pick up without thinking and hear a man's voice saying, "Nate?" A chill blossoms in a deep part of my body, extending out my arms and legs and up the back of my neck. "Nate, it's your father."
Even though I picked up the handset, the answering machine comes on. I lurch up out of my chair toward the machine so that the phone falls off the table, landing on the floor with loud clatter. "Hold on," I say, fumbling at the machine -- it finally stops, leaving a gulf-like silence between Joe and me.
"Son?" the voice at the other end of the line ventures.
"Hi," I manage to say out of a mouth suddenly dry as cotton wadding.
"Hi. It's nice to hear your voice."
"How are you doing?"
"That's good. This must feel a little sudden, me getting in touch like this."
I try to swallow, then sip a little of what's left in my coffee cup. "Sudden is one word for it," I agree.
"I know. Well, the time just felt right."
"Right for what?" I ask.
"Oh, to break the ice I guess, get to know you and your sister a little."
I feel resentment coursing up in me, about all the years I wanted my father to show up like this. And now that he has, years and years too late, he makes the presumption that there's a place for him. I'm afraid to open my mouth and say anything. I think if I do, emotions might come shooting out like the balls of flame from a roman candle. Or I might throw up. Either way, fireworks of a sort.
Joe pauses, as if searching for words. "I know this is awkward." I don't know what to say and stay silent. "Listen, part of the reason I called is because I think someone I know may be coming to see you."
"Believe me, I had nothing to do with it...."
I'm trying to figure out how to respond when my call-waiting bing-bongs. "I have another call," I say, trying not to sound overjoyed. "I'll be right back." When I go to the other line, it's Amanda. "Hey," I tell her, "he called again!"
"Now! He's holding on the other line!"
There is a brief pause. "What do we do?"
"I don't know."
"He's on the other line right now?"
"Yeah. I should probably get back to him."
I click back to Joe to find the line silent and dead. "Joe?" I ask, hearing only faint static. Confused, I click on the call waiting again, it produces nothing. I touch my forehead and find perspiration, fine drops of it up by my hairline.
I don't try to call him back. After I've put the phone down and turned the answering machine on again, I sit out on the back porch and think. Life has gotten complicated over the last 24 hours. Do I need this aggravation? No. Do I want my father in my life at this time? I truly can't say.
In the house, the phone rings twice and the answering machine takes the call. Could be my father, could be my sister, could be the Hair Club For Men. I don't get up to find out. I stay put and something about the distant ringing evokes a great feeling of loneliness. I sit on the porch for a long time, my stomach in a knot, as the day passes slowly around me.
[continued in part 2]
© 1997, 2009 by runswithscissors