LONG ISLAND RESCUE
My mother was sick, “sick unto death,” as Poe wrote. With my beleaguered father unable to work as an accountant and look after me and my six siblings, my mother asked her older sister Roxanne, a more patient and practical soul, to raise me until further notice. We lived in Erie, Pennsylvania, in a ramshackle old gray mansion that was once a station on the Underground Railroad. Aunt Roxy and her husband, Uncle Max, dispatched their daughter, my cousin Mena, and her fiancé, Sheldon, to drive to Erie and bring me down to their house in Melville, Long Island.
Sheldon was an engineer at Grumman Aerospace, Mena one of the company librarians. I was five years old — the youngest of seven kids by eight years — garrulous, incorrigible. As we drove across New York State, Sheldon kept glancing at me in bemusement. More than once he asked me if I’d ever been tested for diarrhea of the larynx.
We reached New York City in terrible summer traffic. It was August 1969, nearly 90 degrees outside, and the Woodstock music festival had the Thruway in a stranglehold. We were stuck for two hours on the Throggs Neck Bridge. Sheldon asked me if I’d ever dissected a Throgg. Could I properly separate the head from the body?
“Sure I could,” I bragged.
“Careful,” he countered, “don’t you know that Throggs are all neck?”
When I asked why we were stuck, Sheldon said it was because I hadn’t paid the toll. Did I have twenty five cents? We couldn’t move until I paid. I said it was the adults’ responsibility to pay. He said we’d have to have a talk about responsibility.
I was five years old — the youngest of seven kids by eight years — garrulous, incorrigible. As we drove across New York State, Sheldon kept glancing at me in bemusement. More than once he asked me if I’d ever been tested for diarrhea of the larynx.
My mother’s condition, a cocktail of cirrhosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and, we later learned, a rare leukemia — together with my father’s amphibious consumption of beer and whiskey — had left me a gaunt, unkempt waif with hollow, flickering eyes and skin translucent as candle wax. Aunt Roxy set out to reverse the damage inflicted by my profligate parents. I was introduced to regular baths, clean clothes, and three meals a day: eggs for breakfast, tuna sandwiches and fruit for lunch, beef and boiled vegetables for dinner. I fattened up nicely. Photos of me from that time show a plump, cheerful, rosy-cheeked boy.
To keep me company in my upstairs bedroom, Aunt Roxy brought out of the attic a large, white rattan elephant table from Thailand, which she’d purchased years before at a local import emporium. The regal beast had small black eyes and a pointy set of tusks, and its howdah flattened out into a low, oval tabletop. Each night, when I undressed for bed, I laid my clothes atop the elephant, which stood next to my bureau. Like clockwork, Scampi, Max and Roxy’s grizzled toy poodle, would dash in and steal my socks, running downstairs to chew on them in his bed next to Uncle Max’s leather-topped writing desk in the den.
Uncle Max was a retired firefighter from the Bronx. At the height of his career, he’d been a battalion chief and had seen plenty of serious action. He was on the scene after a Mitchell Bomber struck the Empire State Building in July 1945. Newsreel footage captured him twice: hosing down smoldering metal on the devastated 79th floor and, later, down on the street, stripped to his undershirt, helping carry a wounded man on a stretcher. Before that, in 1942, he’d helped fight the fire that destroyed the S.S. Normandie. The famous conflagration had been ignited by a spark from a welder’s torch when the ocean liner, rechristened the Lafayette, was being converted into a troop carrier for the war. A newspaper photo shows him, in a long coat and helmet, leaping from the ship’s deck as the flooded compartments caused it to list and topple to the waterline.
Max’s firefighting days ended with a five-alarm blaze in Harlem. Climbing the stairs in the burning tenement four times to save people trapped inside gave him a heart attack and forced him into early retirement, but his pension allowed him and Roxy to buy the house in Melville. There, his love for tinkering flourished; he enlarged the upstairs, added a long, screened-in back porch, and devoted himself to repairing clocks in his basement workshop.
Uncle Max said he’d grown up on Shakespeare Avenue in the Bronx, so that made me eager to learn to spell S-h-a-k-e-s-p-e-a-r-e, too. Sheldon asked me if I could spell the name of the longest river in America. I squinted at him and rattled off: 'M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.'
Along with resurrecting my health and hygiene, Aunt Roxy, a kindergarten teacher, nurtured my reading. She discovered that I loved spelling words aloud. One night at dinner, when I refused the broccoli she’d prepared, she asked why I wouldn’t eat something so nutritious. I spelled out my reason: “r-e-p-u-l-s-i-v-e.” So I was forced to stay at the kitchen table and finish the revolting stalks. All alone, I crept over to scrape my plate into the garbage pail under the sink. Roxy caught me and served me more, but I wouldn’t eat. Knowing my fondness for big words, she soon outfoxed me. Two nights later she served me more broccoli, this time diced beyond recognition, sprinkled with a sweet and sour sauce. She told me it was called Massapequa garden vegetable, an expensive local delicacy farmed in Long Island’s richest soil. I devoured it, and soon began requesting it regularly. This also made me want to learn how to spell Massapequa, then Massachusetts and Manhattan. Uncle Max said he’d grown up on Shakespeare Avenue in the Bronx, so that made me eager to learn to spell S-h-a-k-e-s-p-e-a-r-e, too. Sheldon asked me if I could spell the name of the longest river in America. I squinted at him and rattled off: “M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.”
“Sorry, kid,” he replied with a cockeyed smile, “it’s em-eye-crooked letter-crooked letter- eye-crooked letter-crooked letter-eye-pee-pee-eye.”
One cold December afternoon my aunt said we had to talk. It was about my mother, she said. I mysteriously preempted her:
“I know, Aunt Roxy, she’s an angel in heaven now.” Aunt Roxy stared back at me in wide-eyed silence.
Sprightly but declining, Scampi suffered a stroke right under the dining room table during dinner one Sunday evening. Mena and Sheldon rushed him to the vet, but he died in the car. Like my mother, the old poodle was doomed. Several days later, Sheldon whispered to me that it was my socks that had killed Scampi.
I was banished to the cellar stairs . . . my seat of punishment for misbehavior
My twenty months in Melville coincided with the advent of Sesame Street, which Roxy found to be quite unsuitable for children. The Cookie Monster, she said, promoted gluttony, and she took real exception to Oscar the Grouch, wondering what on earth was educational about people living inside of garbage cans. I told her she must be a crackpot.
“Excuse me?” she asked, her voice unusually stern. “I said, you’re a c-r-a-c-k-p-o-t!”
I was banished to the cellar stairs. Not downstairs — my uncle’s workshop was forbidden territory — but the top step, my seat of punishment for misbehavior. I would have to sit, sometimes for an hour, and listen to the hundreds of clocks ticking down in the darkness. At first, they always sounded like a swarm of chittering insects, but after a while, they began to synch up and mark time all together, with a dark, perfect silence between each tick.
My uncle had all kinds of clocks down there: wind-up alarm clocks, humming electric clocks, fancy cherrywood mantelpiece clocks, cuckoo clocks, a ferocious brass lion clock, an Ansonia Shakespeare clock. One stately ironwood grandfather clock had a blazing sun-face dial and a halberd-blade pendulum. Sheldon called it the pendulum in the pit and told me that just as Uncle Max and his battalion couldn’t save the Lafayette, there would be no Lafayette to rescue me. Years later, I read Poe’s story and saw the weird prophecy in Sheldon’s allusion, but at that moment, I simply blustered that, at least, I could spell “Lafayette.” Sheldon called my bluff, and I spelled it “laugh-eye-ate.”
One warm spring day, a month after Mena and Sheldon wed in a simple service, my father appeared in shirtsleeves to fetch me back to Erie. Within months, I was as scrawny, underfed, and dirty as before, and, thanks to Aunt Roxy’s tutoring, an insufferable standout in the first grade. I recall telling Uncle Max on the phone a couple of years later that I was sorry Aunt Roxy had died. I never heard his voice again. A year later, he too was dead of lung cancer. Mena became a bookbinder and calligraphist. Sheldon went on to design advanced digital navigation systems, reducing mechanical failures, improving aircraft safety, and ultimately saving thousands of lives.
Twenty-three years later, I got married. Mena mailed me a card inscribed with her gorgeous cursive writing. For a wedding gift, she wanted to give us one of my uncle’s clocks. Six weeks later, an immaculate, 19th-century Viennese wall clock arrived in a wooden box, packed in straw. I was impressed by the heft and density of the pinecone-shaped lead weights. The round copper pendulum shone like a harvest moon. My cousin also sent a photograph of uncle Max when he was still a firefighter in the Bronx, standing at the east end of the Old Croton Aqueduct High Bridge. She wrote that the photo was taken after Max had dissuaded a distraught teenage boy from jumping off the span into the Harlem River 140 feet below. The boy he had coaxed back to this side of life was Sheldon.
I recall telling Uncle Max on the phone a couple of years later that I was sorry Aunt Roxy had died. I never heard his voice again.
Brendan Riley studied English at Santa Clara University and Rutgers University and translation at U.C Berkeley, and at the University of Illinois. His work has appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Three Percent, Asymptote, Numéro Cinq, Bookslut, Drunken Boat, Anomaly, Publishers Weekly, The Believer, Best European Fiction, and The New York Times. His book-length translations include: Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco Moreno; Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrique; Sunrise in Southeast Asia by Carmen Grau; The Bible: Living Dialogue by Pope Francis, Abraham Skorka, and Marcelo Figueroa; Caterva by Juan Filloy; The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes; and Recounting: Antagony—Book I by Luis Goytisolo. Brendan has been a high school teacher of English and Spanish since 1994. This is his first published short story.