Wrecking Ball // William Boyle
When Francis Volpe got home, he saw that Nicky Borgia’s Dodge Challenger was blocking his driveway again. Francis didn’t have a car but it upset him when people took for granted that the driveway wasn’t in use. He went over to Nicky’s and knocked on the front door.
Nicky’s father, Vito, answered. He owned a pork store in Long Island City and worked only three days a week.
“Your son’s in my driveway again,” Francis said.
“Give it a break, Volpe. You don’t even have a car. Who’s he bothering?”
“Tell him to move it.”
Vito sighed. He disappeared inside and came back out with Nicky, who gritted his teeth as he walked by Francis.
Francis put his head down.
Nicky pulled the car out and parked in front of a hydrant across the street. “Happy, you old prick?” he said, passing Francis on the way back in.
If there’s a fire, Francis thought, let the firemen break the windows on his peachy clean car and push it down the street.
Vito closed the door.
Francis went to his house and checked the mail. Just circulars. No postcard from Joanna. She’d sent one, three years ago, from New Orleans, but that was the last he’d heard. He’d written hundreds of letters to her, saying a daughter should be in touch with her old man, but he had nowhere to send them. He kept the letters in a shoebox under his bed. He hadn’t seen Joanna in over six years now. After Linda died, he’d tried to be a good father. He’d taught summer school and ESL classes at the community college for extra money so Joanna could go to Bishop Kearney. He’d packed her lunches and tried not to embarrass her in front of her friends.
The shape of Francis’s days ate away at him. He woke in the mornings and made coffee the way his mother taught him: in a pot on the stove, mixing the water and grounds with eggshells and a pinch of salt to cut the bitterness. If the weather was nice, he’d take a walk to Coney Island and sit out on the Boardwalk. If it wasn’t, he’d go to the Ulmer Park library and read a Larry McMurtry. Later, he’d get a couple of slices or Chinese. If there was a ballgame on, he’d listen to it on the radio. If there wasn’t, he’d rent old movies from the last video store in the neighborhood.
Sometimes he went out for coffee at McDonald’s with the old ladies from the parish who wanted to set him up with their forty-something divorced daughters. He paid for their coffee, helped them cross Eighty-Sixth Street, and never answered their questions about whether or not he was interested in coming over for dinner.
He settled into his recliner for The Price is Right now. In the middle of the show, the phone rang. It was Dan Murphy, who he’d worked with at P.S. 101. Dan always wanted to get lunch at the Roulette Diner. But it was too hard to see him. Dan always asked how he was doing. “Fran, come on out today,” Dan said.
“Not today,” Francis said.
“Quit stewing. We want to see you. Elaine’s gonna be there. She needs someone to talk about the Mets with. Santana. Poor guy. How many games can they blow for him?”
“I’m just not feeling well.”
“We’ll be at the Roulette at one. We’ll keep a seat open.”
Francis hung up. He watched the end of the show and then made a grilled cheese. He ate it at the kitchen table. When he was done, he sat back down in the recliner and tried to sleep. But he couldn’t. He’d intended to walk to Coney Island later that afternoon even though it was cold, but he thought it might be a good day for a trip to Ebbets instead.
Francis bundled up and caught the B3 out on Twenty-Fifth Avenue. At Avenue U, he transferred for the B49. It was a long ride, always longer than he remembered, and he felt nervous on the bus. You never knew who was going to get on and start trouble. When he got to Bedford Avenue, he walked to the Ebbets Field Apartments and sat on a bench. No one looked at him.
His best memories as a kid were of watching the Dodgers. They won the Series in ‘55 when he was five. His father took him to games often, and they ate franks and peanuts. They saw the last game there in September of ‘57. His father died the next summer, cursing Walter O’Malley from his hospital bed. Ebbets was torn down in ‘60. O’Malley and Robert Moses ruined the world, Francis thought. He was there when the two-ton wrecking ball went in. The wrecking ball made to look like a baseball. His mother took him, and they stood in the shadow of the stadium, crying as it crumbled.
Francis had tried to make Joanna care about baseball. He and Linda had her late, and he was lucky enough to take Joanna to Mets games when the Mets were good. He bought her a little Daryl Strawberry jersey and a pair of blue and orange booties. She was a baby, but she was there for Game Six when the Mets made a miracle happen against the Sox. She saw Doc Gooden pitch four times when she was a toddler. When she was eight, she said, “I don’t like baseball.” Stopped going to games. Linda went with him for a while until she got sick. After she died, he stopped going.
A slump-shouldered kid wheeled around on a scooter in front of Francis, and it made him think about all that had been lost when the Dodgers went west. He wondered what Brooklyn would’ve been like if they’d stayed. He wondered if he could’ve made Joanna love the Dodgers.
“Hey, kid,” Francis said. “You know about Duke Snider?”
The kid shook his head.
“Jackie Robinson? Pee Wee Reese?”
Another head shake.
No one knew anything anymore. Francis used to think Brooklyn was special. Brooklyn wasn’t special.
On the way home, Francis got off the bus at Stillwell Avenue and walked to Spumoni Gardens. He ordered two square slices and sat at a table outside and ate them while watching cars double park for to-go orders.
Since there was no ballgame on, he decided to stop at the video store when he was done. He walked in, and the clerk—a young Russian guy wearing a white tracksuit—nodded at him. Francis had seen him there once or twice and thought he must be the owner’s son.
Francis looked around. The deal was rent two and get a third free. He picked up the cases for Niagara and American Madness and searched for a third. Then he looked over his shoulder and considered going into the adult section. He’d never been in there. He pushed back the curtain and walked in. DVD cases and VHS boxes were propped up on the shelves. Images of spread legs and puffed-out chests overwhelmed him. He took something called No Man’s Land #45 down and turned the case over in his hand. There was a girl that looked like Joanna on the back cover. Francis brought the case out and put it on the counter. “You like these movies?” he said to the clerk.
“Sure,” the clerk said.
He pointed to the girl. “You know her?”
“I’ve seen her in one or two. Gloria something.” He paused. “Gloria Gash.”
Francis put Niagara and American Madness back on the shelves. He wondered if it really was Joanna.
“You want to rent this?” the clerk said, holding up No Man’s Land #45.
“I’ll take it,” Francis said.
“You got a card?”
Francis took out his card and handed it to the clerk.
The clerk went into the back and came out with the disc in a plastic rental sleeve. “Three dollars,” he said. “Due back tomorrow by five.”
Francis paid and put the movie in his jacket pocket.
He left and stopped at McMenemy’s on the way home. He hadn’t been to a bar in years. He sat down and ordered a beer. The place was almost empty. A little woman in a dark hat was hunched over in a booth next to the pool table, and an old man played video poker at the end of the bar. The bartender introduced herself as Sammy. She looked like she’d been set on fire and stomped out. Francis worked on his beer. He saw that there was a jukebox in the back and went over to it and flipped through the pages. Lots of good stuff. He settled on Sinatra’s “There Used to Be a Ballpark” and punched in the numbers. The song came on, and Sammy turned it up.
“Can’t beat Frankie,” Sammy said.
“Sure can’t,” Francis said.
“You from the neighborhood?”
“All my life,” Francis said. “Don’t drink much anymore.”
“But tonight you’re drinking?”
“For a little while.”
“You’re in a bad way?” Sammy said.
Francis shook his head.
Sammy shrugged and threw a bleach-soaked towel over her shoulder.
The song ended, and Francis got up and played it again. Sammy turned it down this time. Francis ordered a shot of whiskey and another beer. He sipped the head off the beer and then slugged the shot. He thought about the girl he’d seen on the back cover of the DVD. The hair was too red, the skin paler. The girl had tattoos, earrings in her nose and lips, big breasts. Joanna was plain, rail thin. She had freckles like her mother. Maybe it was just that he wanted some evidence of where she was and what she was doing. It had happened before. He often opened magazines and newspapers and scanned pictures of crowds for Joanna. He tried to imagine reasons why she’d be in certain places. He was sure he’d seen her at rallies, at marathons, at movie premieres. But this, this had to be wrong.
Francis got up and left. He walked home. He saw that Nicky’s car was parked in the driveway again. This time the car blocked the whole thing from end to end. Francis went inside and scoured the pantry for booze. He found an ancient bottle of Glenfiddich, a gift from his brother-in-law after the Mets took the ‘86 Series. And he found a six-pack of Schaefer beer, still in its plastic rings. Both were covered in dust. He went over to the sink. He opened a beer and let some fizz down the drain. Then he drank it. It was warm and stale-tasting. He went into the living room, bringing the bottle of Glenfiddich with him, and went through a stack of records. He put Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours on the turntable. He sat in his recliner, opened the Glenfiddich, and tilted it back.
When the record was over, Francis went down to the basement to get Joanna’s junior yearbook from Kearney. He turned the light on. Tools were all over the floor. Old boxes of Linda’s clothes lined the walls. He opened one and took out a sweater that Linda had loved. It smelled like sickness, like the winter she’d died. He hadn’t been to her grave in two years. He didn’t feel her there. He didn’t know what death was anymore. He stuffed the sweater back into the box and went over to the bookcase across from the oil burner. The yearbook was wedged behind a stack of Linda’s recipes on a sagging shelf. He opened to the page that Joanna was on. Other girls had included quotes and lists of activities, but there was nothing below Joanna’s picture. Her hair was parted. She wore no makeup. She wasn’t smiling.
He replaced the book on the shelf and headed back upstairs. He took the porn movie out of his pocket and put it on. When the music started, he lowered the volume. The first scene was in a bathtub and it featured the Gloria girl who looked like Joanna. He searched her face. Another girl came into the shot and said, “I’m getting in.”
Gloria splashed some water. “Please,” she said.
They soaped each other up.
Francis drank more.
When the girls were done washing each other, they started kissing and touching. Francis shut the movie off. He took the disc out and left it on top of the player.
He thought about a time not long before Joanna left. They were standing in the living room. “I’m going,” Joanna had said.
“Not with Nicky Borgia,” Francis had said. “Not to a bar in the city.”
“What’s wrong with Nicky?”
“He’s not your type. You need a guy who does well in school. All he cares about is cars.”
“You’re really going out with this guy? Even though I said no?”
“I’m not gonna be like you and Mom. The way you were scared to do anything. The way you never left the neighborhood.”
And she’d gone. Disobeyed him. She dated Nicky for two or three weeks. Francis argued with her a lot. But Nicky was nothing. When Joanna told him a few weeks later that she and her best friend Kristy were going to hitchhike to California, Francis said, “No daughter of mine’s gonna do that.”
“I’m not a possession,” Joanna had said.
“You’re gonna go looking like that?” Francis had said. She’d started wearing bright dresses over her jeans and putting beads in her hair. “You look like a whack job hippie. Hitchhikers—you know what happens to them? This day and age.”
“I’m not worried.”
Thinking about it now, Francis knew he should’ve said different things. He should’ve said, “I love you. I won’t worry.”
He sat down on the floor of the basement with Joanna’s yearbook and wept.
The next morning Francis woke up with a hangover. He made coffee and sat with it at the kitchen table. He spiked the coffee with scotch. After a few minutes, he went outside and saw that Nicky’s car was still there. He wasn’t going over to Nicky’s house again. He sat on the hood and waited.
Nicky threw open an upstairs window and stuck his head all the way out. “Hell you doing?” he said.
“Waiting,” Francis said.
“You dent it, you owe me.”
Francis said nothing.
Nicky came outside, wearing gym shorts, no shirt on, tattoos of eagles and flags and girls bright on his chest. He had a claw hammer in his hand, maybe to beat out possible dents, maybe to bash in Francis’s head.
“You gonna hit me?” Francis said.
“I’m gonna stuff it in your mouth,” Nicky said.
“Get off the hood.”
“Get off, and I’ll move it.”
“When you took Joanna out, what’d you talk about?”
“You heard me.”
Nicky shook his head.
Francis shuffled away from the car. Nicky got under the wheel and put the hammer on the passenger seat. He moved the car and parked in front of the hydrant. He got out and looked at the hood.
“Lucky I didn’t dent it,” Francis said.
“You wanna know what Jo talked about?”
“You wanna know did she hate you?” Nicky laughed. “You sorry bastard.” He walked back to his house.
Francis just stood there. Joanna was alive somewhere, and he was dead the way things got dead when they didn’t know how to live. He went inside and mixed more scotch and coffee. He started to think that maybe he was actually jealous of Joanna. Writing letters he couldn’t send, waiting for a postcard or a call – all of it was because she was free and he wasn’t.
The more he drank the better he felt. The booze was screwing up his courage.
It was almost nine. He went to McDonald’s and got pancakes and coffee. He made a plan. He wrote on the back of a napkin: Start over. Have adventures. Be free. When he was done, he walked down to Kohl’s to get new pants. He would need new pants if he was starting from scratch.
Looking through the racks, Francis settled on a pair of brown corduroys and brought them to the register. The checkout woman was about forty. She had glimmery eyes. He smiled and pushed the folded pants along the belt.
She said hello. He noticed a pack of Camels poking out from the top of her apron. He imagined her smoking a cigarette. Lipstick on the filter, he’d always loved that. “You’re very lovely,” he said.
She put his pants in a bag. “Seventeen fifty-six.”
Francis took out his wallet. “Of course,” he said. He handed her a twenty and waited for change.
“I can smell your breath from here.”
“Your breath. You can kill a person with breath like that in the morning.” She waved her hand in front of her nose.
“What’s your name?”
“What time do you get off?”
“It’s early. I just started,” she said.
“Come back to my house. We’ll watch a movie.”
“I don’t think so.”
“If you want to, here’s my number.” He wrote it down on the back of a receipt. He took his bag and left Kohl’s.
Back home, he put on his new pants and wondered if Ludmilla would call. Probably not. He sat at the kitchen table. He started to write a letter to Joanna and told her about renting the movie. He wrote: I hope it’s not you, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t, but I understand if it is. He told her that he was drinking for the first time in a while and that it felt pretty good. He finished the letter and tucked it away with the rest. Maybe she’d find them one day.
Afternoon light came in through the window and showed dust swirling in the kitchen. Francis went over to pull the blinds. Before he grabbed the cord, he looked outside and saw that Nicky’s Challenger was parked in the driveway, its passenger side tires up on the curb. He walked outside and looked in the car. The claw hammer was still on the passenger seat.
Francis went back in and drank more scotch. It wasn’t enough to tell Nicky to move his car. Just like it wasn’t worth anything to wonder about Joanna. Or to see that old wrecking ball that ruined his childhood as anything more than forged steel in the service of bad men.
Francis realized then that he needed to buy a car because he wanted to block Nicky’s Challenger. He thought it would be useful for other things too. To visit Linda at the cemetery in Queens. To drive across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time in ten years and get sfogliatelle and espresso at Veniero’s. He went up to his bedroom and opened the small safe that he kept in the closet. There was six grand in cash there. He put three grand in an envelope and stuffed it in the secret inside pocket of his jacket.
He walked a few blocks to Flash Auto on the corner of Bay Thirty-Fourth. He figured Angelo, the owner, would ask about Joanna, and he was okay with that.
When he walked into the lobby of Flash, Angelo greeted him. “Francis,” he said. “Been a long time.”
“Good to see you, Ang,” Francis said. He looked around. A framed picture of the cast of The Sopranos hung on the wall next to a poster of the 2006 Italian World Cup championship team.
“How’s Joanna?” Angelo said.
“She’s traveling. Always moving. I don’t hear from her much. She’s healthy.”
“Good. Still works at HSBC.” Angelo paused. “You’re here for what, a car?”
“Let me show you.”
Francis settled on a 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. It was two grand, and it had only eighty thousand miles on it. It was a hardtop coupe. Gunmetal gray. “Belonged to an old lady,” Angelo said. “Mrs. Sforza from Twenty-Third Avenue. You know her?”
Francis shook his head.
“Had it twenty years. That’s what? Four thousand miles a year. It’s in good shape.”
Francis said he’d take it. They went back inside and did the paperwork. Angelo didn’t charge him tax since he was paying cash. Francis counted out two thousand dollars and handed it over. Angelo gave him the title and the keys, and they shook. Francis went out and started the car. It sounded good.
He drove back to his house. Nicky’s Challenger was still there. He pulled up next to it and double parked. With a car in front of the Challenger and a car behind it, Nicky was boxed in.
Francis went inside and sat in his recliner. He closed his eyes and slept.
He woke up an hour later to the sound of someone leaning on a horn. He smiled. He went over to the window and looked out. Nicky was in the Challenger. He was pressing down on the horn with one hand and pounding the dash with the other. Francis poured some scotch, took a drink, and watched. Nicky got out of the car and looked all around.
Francis walked outside. “Help you?” he said, as he approached the street.
“Get out of here,” Nicky said.
“What it looks like.”
“You know something about it?”
“That’s my new car.”
“You’re shitting me,” Nicky said.
“I’m not,” Francis said.
“You mind moving it? I gotta be somewhere in fifteen minutes.”
“Don’t block the driveway again.”
Nicky scratched under his eye. “Or you’ll what?”
“Next time I park on top of your car.”
Francis moved the car across the street. Nicky pulled up next to him and made a sign for him to roll down his window. Francis opened the passenger side window. Nicky leaned out of his car and said, “You wanna know what Jo said? She said you were boring. Said it was boring here and she didn’t want to live like this.”
Francis got out of the Olds and walked over to the Challenger. He reached inside and grabbed Nicky by the neck. “I’ll strangle you, you little shit,” he said. Keeping his right hand pressed under Nicky’s chin, he stretched across the center console with his left, feeling around for the claw hammer on the passenger seat.
“Hell you doing?” Nicky said, through clenched teeth.
Francis got a grip on the hammer and brought it back, snapping it at Nicky’s head. Nicky twisted his head away, but Francis caught him on the ear.
Nicky, palming his ear, said, “You’re off the rails, old man. I’ll sue your ass for assault.”
Francis let go and stepped back.
Nicky punched the gas and drove away up the block.
Francis got in his Olds and put the hammer on the dash. The car had a tape player. In the glove compartment was an old Peggy Lee cassette. Black Coffee. He put it in. He started the car and drove around the neighborhood.
He drove past Most Precious Blood School, where he and Linda and Joanna had all gone at different times. He drove past P.S. 101, where he’d taught. Scaffolding hung around it now, the schoolyard turned into a parking lot. He drove past Kearney and imagined Joanna, at fifteen, running up the front steps. The building looked empty and dark. He drove past where the Loew’s Oriental used to be. He and Linda had seen The Odd Couple there. They’d taken Joanna to see The Karate Kid three times. They’d stood and watched as a scene from Angie was filmed under the marquee. The theater was gone. It was a Marshalls.
Francis got on the Belt Parkway and headed for Queens. He was going to visit Linda. When he got to her grave, he’d kneel down. He’d talk to her. He’d say he was sorry. He’d say that he knew someone could still be there even if it felt like they weren’t. He’d admit to her that he might never see Joanna again. He’d say now he believed that was okay. Driving fast on the Belt, he cranked down the window and let a blast of air in.
William Boyle is the author of the novel Gravesend and the story collection Death Don’t Have No Mercy. His writing has appeared in L.A. Review of Books, Salon, The Rumpus, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and other magazines and journals. Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Boyle lives in Oxford, MS.