By Mitchell Waldman
On the street where I grew up people didn’t live so much as they died. Big deaths, little deaths. Nate Wasserman — father of Bobby, Joe and Arnold, who I babysat once, who jumped me, stole my glasses, and hid them from me — he was the first to go. A jeweler, he was ambushed on a trip to Jamaica, gunned down in an alleyway behind his hotel. When they found his body, the jewels he’d been carrying were long gone. He was the man who lit fireworks in his backyard every Fourth of July. My parents didn’t approve. They shook their heads and said it wasn’t safe, kids lost their hands doing stuff like that. To us kids, though, he was a folk hero. He’d brought fireworks to Chestnut Street. His death was one of our most dramatic.
It was a small inconspicuous street, with a cul-de-sac at the end so you could turn around, but the death and cancer rates on it were spectacular. People said there used to be a swamp where the street is, and they’d filled it in with something, made it liveable. Now people are saying there might have been dioxin in the fill, that they’re going to have to shut the whole area down, make it something like a ghost town.
It was a peaceful little suburban street, not a lot of noise on it, unless we were playing football, complete with passing patterns behind parked cars.
Our football games were orchestrated by an older kid, Jack Baylor, who went just by “Baylor” and had an authentic, professional NFL football that he’d caught in the stands during one of the Bears games. He always played quarterback and his team always won. He could really whip a football. The question was whether any of us could catch it.
He had short legs, but could outrun any of us. With his index finger, he would map out each of our passing patterns on another boy’s back. “Okay, Sam,” he would say, “go straight out about five steps, then hook back, like this, behind that blue Impala and then out again.” We’d watch, careful students, as he diagrammed our paths.
Baylor’s father got lung cancer when Baylor was eighteen, when we were all too big to play football on the street anymore. And, by then, he was already in college, studying to be whatever he would become.
We usually played our games strictly on the straight part of the street, never venturing into the cul-de-sac, where the Reisers lived. They were sort of an odd bunch, I don’t really remember why now, maybe just because they were quiet. Nobody really knew them, none of the three boys played football in the fall, or baseball in the summer, or basketball in the spring, just after the thaw, like the rest of us. They kept to themselves. Andrew was in my sister Dana’s grade. He was always bringing bugs to school, threatening to throw them down girls’ backs. His older brother, Jeremiah, was a studious sort, into science and blowing things up.
Andrew was the wild one. One day he was playing with three other boys by the railroad tracks, about a half mile from Chestnut Street. He was only thirteen. They were down by the tracks, drinking whiskey from a flask one of the boys had snuck from his father’s bar. It started like that, only then Andrew made his dare. At least, that’s how one of the other boys, Mark McConnell, told it afterwards. They didn’t have the guts, Andrew said, to lay right down on the tracks while the train was approaching. “Oh yeah!” the others had replied vehemently. Boys in our neighborhood always took dares seriously, although with this one, Mark McConnell admitted, he was a little shaky. Even so, they’d waited together for the 4:45 freight. It was right on time. At 4:43 they heard its whistle, felt the tracks’ vibrations. It was then that Andrew had calmly laid down. The other boys, looking at one another, followed his example. “Now, the one of us who stays down the longest is the real man. The rest of you are all pussy shits. Right?”
“Right,” the others replied, less vehemently this time.
As it turned out, Andrew won the dare, hands down. His body was so mangled the coroner had to examine his molars to make a positive ID.
We had neighbors we didn’t get along with, the Forrests. They didn’t die or even get cancer, although sometimes we wished they would. There was a strip of bushes between our houses which our fathers had planted together.
They had two girls and we had two boys and a girl. The Forrest girls were fairly homely, all knee bones and elbows, with not much else on them. For years our parents wouldn’t talk to their parents. I think it all started when the younger Forrest girl, Becky, who was in my sister’s grade, pushed Dana off her bike and then wouldn’t apologize. Some nonsense like that. And, from there, things just started to escalate. It got so ridiculous that one day we came out of the house amazed, my brother, Will, and me, to find the bushes between our houses half cut. Not just one half of the bushes cut, but all of them cut, but only halfway in. That didn’t make Will or me particularly happy. We had other things to do with our Saturdays — bicycle trips to take with the guys to the lagoons, where we would pretend to fish (we never caught anything), trips to the Magic Castle Miniature Golf Course, where on one of the holes an elevator actually took your ball all the way up a small model of the Empire State Building and then spit it out again. But seeing those hedges halfway cut like that, even though they looked sort of wacky, looked okay to us, we knew our dad would blow a gasket and have us out there all day with his electric hedge trimmer to level them off, fuming behind us, supervising as Will and I took turns on the ladder with the instant digit remover. But that was the sort of thing the Forrests did. They wouldn’t have thought to ask us for help. No, Mr. Forrest would just get out there himself and start hacking halfway in. I guess the feud was too well under way by then.
For the rest of our years of growing up and, as far as I know, for the next twenty years, my parents and the Forrests didn’t talk to each other. Their houses no more than twenty feet apart, driveways side by side.
But a couple of years after I left for college, Mr. Forrest started talking to me. I’m not sure why exactly, but he did. I’d pull in the driveway with my sky blue Mustang and he’d look up from his front yard gardening, smile, walk over to me, and ask me how I was doing. The first time it shocked the hell out of me, this guy that never said boo to us, never even looked at us, all of the sudden being friendly.
I went into the house with my vinyl suitcase and asked my mom and dad if they and the Forrests had started talking to each other again. “No,” my mom said, wiping her hands on her apron, “Why?”
“Because he just shook my hand and asked me how I’ve been.”
My mom gaped at me for a moment. Then she regained her composure and smiled at my dad, who was sitting at the kitchen table, reading his newspaper. “Well, how’s about that, Bernie?”
“How’s about what?” he said, looking up from behind his thick glasses, which magnified his eyeballs, made his stare seem even twice as large.
“So Sam, did he ask you if you want to take Becky out on the town?”
“Oh, Bernard, stop. He was just trying to be friendly to our little Sammy. Now that he’s all grown up.” She came over to me and hugged me too tight, for too long. I let her though, knowing I only had to put up with it for breaks and summer vacations. I could see the top of her head as she squeezed. It seemed that the taller I got, the more she shrunk. That’s how life goes, I guess. We all shrink in the end.
There was another family next to the Reisers, down at the end of the block, that we didn’t know too well. Their kids had grown up before we all had, so the parents were a little older. She had the big C though, the mother. I don’t know what kind it was, but she didn’t last long.
Marty Hoffman lived across the street and down two houses from us. He was Will’s friend more than mine. They were in the same grade, a year ahead of me. Will, Marty, and David Bender from down the street were like a team back then. They were always together. Bender was the guy whose front tooth I knocked out, tagging him too hard during a pickup game of football in the driveway by our bus stop. He was a thin little guy and I was big for my age. I gave him a little shove and he went flying, face first into the garage door. After that he was running home, hand over his face, blood running through his fingers. But I figure it was all for the better, destiny maybe. If it wasn’t for me, Bender might never have become a dentist.
Marty Hoffman became a lawyer. As a kid, he was straight-laced, and slightly overweight. I was shocked when I saw him years later at college. We both went to the same school out in the middle of the cornfields of central Illinois. On a bad day, when the wind was blowing just right, the perfume of cow manure pervaded the campus. When I saw him, Hoffman was on the Quad. He was more than thin — he looked like one of those Holocaust victims you see in all the old pictures from World War II. His hair was a frizzy black mess, little curls springing out here and there, a two days growth of stubble on his face. But it was the eyes that gave him away, the glassy stare — he was an obvious pothead.
He went on to become a very successful lawyer, down in Miami, specializing in real estate, I believe.
It wasn’t until Hoffman and I had both grown up and gone away that Mr. Hoffman got the big C back on Chestnut Street. Nobody really thought about it much, that it might have had something to do with our street. It was just what was happening to people nowadays.
My mom got it, too. And my brother, Will, even though he no longer lived there at the time. They both got it within a year of each other, varying forms of lymphoma.
“Keep in touch, promise me that,” Will said. This was something that the Will I knew as an adult would not ordinarily have said. He was an accountant, very much into making money. He and I had grown apart long before, and gone our separate ways. He’d never had time for the family. But, now he was lying in a hospital bed, undergoing daily radiation treatments. He could die. I’d come home, all the way from Austin, Texas, where I was going to Graduate School, to see him. (I rarely came home anymore — it was too damned far; it was one of the reasons I’d chosen Austin.)
“Please, please, keep in touch.”
“I will,” I said, choking on my words.
“Lying in this hospital here, like this, you realize what’s really important. I had a wild dream. Let me tell you about it. I saw God, Sam, even though you know I never really bought into that much. And the funny thing was he didn’t come as this old wise, white-bearded Santa-Claus type. He looked just like an ordinary guy. Actually, he looked a little like Mr. Forrest — you know, tall, big nose, losing his hair some. You know what he told me?”
I shook my head.
“Take care of your family. Those were his very words.”
I didn’t know what to say. At that time, before Will married Patsy, we — Dad, Mom, Dana and me — were his family.
In a year’s time, though, Will would be cured, happily back, immersed in his booming business of deductions and debit sheets, a regular money-making machine, ignoring the rest of us, once again. It was almost a relief.
By then Mom had gotten it. I’d come home (from Dallas, or I think it was Dallas then) to find my mom and brother sitting on the couch in our old living room (the living room which, as kids, we were never allowed to sit in) talking in some secret sort of code. They were having a regular conversation, one listing off the names of various medications, the other answering with the names of two or three others.
My mom came through it all right, too, although she lost most of her hair, went around for a time with a wig. When she decided to hang that up, it was a shock to see her hair coming in as gray bristles. Not that the length was a shock. It was more the color. She’d always dyed it before, Clairol # 54, Ash-Blonde.
My best friend got it. He lived on the street next to ours. His name was Stanley Fields. He went away to the Air Force just about the time I was going away to college. On my birthday — this was in my freshman year — I got a letter from him saying he’d gotten this intense headache and now they were saying he had a brain tumor.
All I could think at the time was, God, Stan’s going to die, and he’s never even been on a date, he’s never even gotten laid. Even with him being in the Air Force, it was something I was pretty sure of. Back in high school, when the two of us had gone, looking for something to do, we’d usually just end up at some restaurant, stuffing our faces, staring at the girls we knew we wouldn’t meet.
Once — I remember this now — once when he’d gotten a new BB-gun we went out in his backyard and hung a Playboy centerfold on a tree. This was on a summer day when his mom and dad were both at work. The closer we got to the intimate parts, the better the score.
I didn’t think it was all that funny, but he was laughing his head off, really enjoying himself, as we took our turns. I guess maybe there was some sort of aggression in there that I hadn’t really seen in Stan before.
Stan didn’t just keel over and die, though. His illness was agonizingly long for all of us. The tumor in his head was in a place they couldn’t operate without making hamburger meat out of his brain, nor could they really do much radiation without frying it, so he just sort of vegetated on medication, grew all puffy and pasty. He didn’t have a life anymore. I’d go over there and visit him, with this mutual friend of ours, Dennis Needleman. Dennis was always the one to coax me to go over there. I just tried to shy away from it, would always turn my head away as I drove past Stan’s house, afraid that his parents or brother would see me. Ashamed that I’d sort of cut him out of my life. But I was still living, going to school, meeting girls. My life was going forward and his had just sort of stopped before it had started.
I vividly remember the last time I saw him. His mind was going slowly. He couldn’t remember things anymore. His mother had made a plate of cookies, oatmeal I think. Dennis and I sat around the kitchen table, cookies in hand, while Mrs. Fields briefed us on Stanley’s condition. Dennis, a little guy with big energy, nodded his head, acting concerned, maybe acting a little too much — he was destined to be a salesman — hungrily wolfing down cookie after cookie, as Mrs. Fields told us about the tumor size and location, the medication and treatments Stan was on. “There’s not much they can do for him now, except make him feel comfortable.” It had been a couple of years since the whole thing with Stan had started and Mrs. Fields looked about twenty years older. She’d never seemed old before, a little on the heavy side perhaps, but she’d always looked youthful, pretty in the face. I didn’t like to look her in the eyes. She was the kind that could, would, if given the opportunity, challenge you directly. “Bob Hartfield doesn’t ever come around anymore,” she said, “even though he and Stan were in the band together, they were best friends.” It just added to my guilt. I hadn’t seen him in what, a year? I couldn’t look her in the eyes. Suddenly, her hand was on my shoulder. “It’s nice to see you boys. I’m sure Stan will be glad to see you both again. Hold on, I’ll get him.”
The cookie tasted like chalk in my mouth. My stomach was gurgling like a washing machine. I wanted to bolt on out of there.
And when Stan came in the room, it was a shock. He’d grown even bigger and rounder than he’d been the last time I’d seen him. It was like his body was trying to reproduce itself, only both bodies were in the same skin. And he had that glazed expression on his face, and a thin line of drool coming down from the corner of his mouth (not that that should have been too much of a surprise — he’d always had a bit too much spit).
“Look who’s here to see you.” Mrs. Fields said. “Your friends have come to visit.”
He could hardly talk. He was obviously under the influence of some very strong drugs, but there was something else going on too. He couldn’t think, the tumor, as it grew, was taking over Stan’s life.
He sat down at the end of the table, lethargically, like something out of Night of the Living Dead.
“Have a cookie, Stanley. Here.” She reached out and placed one in his hand. He obediently took it and placed it in his mouth. But it sat there for a moment, like he didn’t know what to do with it.
He began to chew.
“So, how’s it goin’, buddy?” Dennis said, smiling, placing a hand on Stan’s shoulder. For all the times I despised the way Dennis put on his act, dealt with the world in his dishonest way, I envied him now, wished I could put on a face and be happy. But, it just didn’t work for me.
“I….” Stan uttered. “Okay, I guess.”
“They treating you all right? Keeping you busy?” Stan’s live-in nurse, Anna, who spoke little English, came into the kitchen for something just then. She said “Hello,” and then she was gone. Dennis, who always got to flappin’ about that, but never actually got any — no girl would take him seriously — got to flappin’ about Anna.
“Does she treat you right? Sneak up to your room at night? Huh? I’ll bet she makes you feel better old buddy, huh?”
“Dennis.” I said. He’d gone too far.
Suddenly, Stan looked across the table and stared at me.
“Who are you?” he said.
I didn’t say anything. Dennis looked at me, then leaned toward Stan, speaking too loud, like the problem was with his hearing.
“It’s Sam,” Dennis said. “You didn’t forget your old friend, Sam, did you?”
“Sam. Don’t you remember how the three of us used to run around the city, the good times we used to have?”
I didn’t really remember many good times, just bad times, sitting around wondering why all the other guys were getting all the girls, but if that’s the way Dennis wanted Stan to remember it….
“Sam,” Stan said, still staring at me, like his eyes forgot how to blink.
“That’s right, Sam,” Dennis said. “Your old buddy, your old pal.”
Suddenly, Stanley, this immovable mass, moved his hand out across the table to me. “Nice to meet you,” he said, meaning me to shake it. He was like a big dog.
Dennis gave me another look, then turned back to Stanley. “You don’t understand.”
I inhaled, took Stan’s hand in mine and shook it. “Nice to meet you, too,” I mumbled.
When Dennis caught up with me, I was past the slide, past the baseball diamond, sitting on one of the benches in the dark, remembering old baseball games.
“You can’t let it get to you,” he said.
“How can I not?”
“You still have your life. We just have to do the best we can for him, be his friend, while we can.”
“I can’t,” I said, looking out toward center field, remembering standing out there in my green and white uniform, the oversized baseball mitt on my hand. “I just can’t.”
“Think how you would feel.”
“I know, Dennis. You’re a good guy, for all your faults. You’re stronger than I am though. I just can’t do it anymore.”
And I didn’t. After that I would come home on my short trips, asking my parents for any news about Stan, but never took up my mom’s suggestions that I go and visit him. I couldn’t shake off that blank stare of his that time, the way he’d said “Who are you?,” as if ten years of growing up together had been wiped out, just like that.
Dennis’ brother died, too. Dennis’ family lived three blocks from us. I was at their house when they were sitting shivah. Dennis said it would be all right, but I wasn’t sure. I told Mrs. Needleman how sorry I was, even though I never really knew Dennis’ brother much. It seemed to bother me, though, more than Dennis. He was joking around, laughing when we went up to his room, like nothing was different. He and his brother hadn’t gotten along too well, I guess.
Ned had thought Dennis was a little twerp, which he was. I put up with him more than anything, the way he’d walk right up to girls at the mall and start trying to pick them up. It was all pretty embarrassing, and after we were leaving, the girls would always be laughing. But he tried to be a good friend, once let me sleep in his basement when I came home from college, had gotten into a fight at this party, and was too wrecked to go home. And another time he’d had a surprise birthday party for me, only no one showed up except my college roommate, Paul, and these two twins who I used to work with at Walgreens when we were kids. Now that was embarrassing. In the end, Paul and me just went out to the bars together to celebrate. Very depressing. Another time, when I was out of school, had a job at a toy store, and Dennis had a job doing something at a downtown hotel, selling convention space, I guess, he set me up with this girl who worked there. She was real thin — had only cheese crackers and Diet Coke for lunch — with a pretty smile. She was black, lived on the Southside, where I’d always been taught a white guy shouldn’t be caught alone at night. I’d moved out of the house then, had my own place, and she said she’d come over to see my place. I think she was afraid what the people in her neighborhood would think. Anyway, she never showed, she stood me up.
The problem with Dennis was he was always putting on, trying too hard to get everyone to like him.
We lost touch, though, after a while. It was inevitable, I guess.
A couple of years later I heard that Stan died. I heard it from my parents. I didn’t go to the funeral.
They’re shutting up Stan’s house, too. They’re making four square blocks of people who’ve spent their lives there pack up and leave. My mom and dad. Where will they go? They’re calling it a disaster area. Tell me about it. And soon it will be gone for good, they’ll tear it all down and the federal boys will come in with their weird beekeeper outfits, walk around the rubble with their fancy detectors and take soil samples, just like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the first time they landed on the moon.
Okay, it’s a disaster area, it’ll be in all the papers in screaming headlines. But all I’ll think about then is my friend, Stan, staring, just staring at me with those watery eyes, and asking, “Who are you?”
Editor’s note: This story previously appeared in Red Fez (2011) and in the story collection Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart (also 2011).
Mitchell Waldman’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The MacGuffin, Fictive Dream, Corvus Review, The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine, The Houston Literary Review, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and the story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart, and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. For more info, see his website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com).